In 1962, 16-year-old Luisa Pequeño left Cuba with her brother. Helped by a Catholic charity that relocated 14,000 Cuban children to the United States during the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, the Pequeño siblings made the journey without their parents.
In fact, their father, a Spanish immigrant who ran a shoe business, and their mother, a pharmacist, both lost their livelihoods during the revolution and couldn’t join their children until 1966 — the year Luisa graduated from Wichita State with a bachelor’s degree in French.
Academically advanced enough to enroll and then excel in college despite her young age, Luisa went on to earn a master’s degree in Spanish from WSU, before entering the teaching profession.
Today, after 37 years as an educator, Luisa (Pequeño) Gonzalez ’66/68 has been honored with teacher of the year awards three times — honors, she says, that would have made her late parents proud.
A foreign language teacher specializing in Spanish, Gonzalez has taught since 1984 at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia, S.C., a private school of 800 students.
She was the school’s Outstanding Teacher in 1991, the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese’s South Carolina Outstanding Teacher in 1999 and was named High School Teacher of the Year for 2004 by the 100-member South Carolina Independent Schools Association.
Heathwood Hall assistant headmaster Anne Weston praises Gonzalez for her “compassion, unwavering commitment to serving others and dogged determination to make her classroom and school increasingly better.”
Gonzalez has largely designed her own curriculum. “I’ve had the freedom to produce a program,” she says. “That has been important to me.”
Thus, her advanced students may find themselves debating, without a word in English, a philosophical question inspired by a literature assignment: “Is it better to be admired or loved?” Not satisfied with simply teaching the language, Gonzalez makes sure to share cultural lessons.
While she does not dwell on her immigration experiences, she makes students aware of them, often saying America is “the land of opportunity” and, on a less serious note, pointing out that schools in many other countries hold classes six days a week.
At Heathwood, Gonzalez, who has two adult sons, has been instrumental in developing the Winterim program, which provides students the opportunity of exchanging a week of classes for service learning, field trips, internships and leadership training. Jim Gasque, a teacher at Heathwood, applauds this contribution to the school: “Our Winterim experience has been life-changing for many.”
Wichita State, Gonzalez says, was a life-changing experience for her. She explains, “It was at WSU I developed a love for teaching foreign languages — inspired by such superb foreign language teachers as Dr. Adamson, Dr. Stabler, Dr. Winget and, most of all, Dr. Eugene Saviano, my academic and personal mentor and model. He guided me through the realms of literature, and the beauty and precision of grammar. He was a true Hispanophile, and I became one. On a personal level, he introduced me to my husband, Alfred. I am grateful to WSU for giving me the opportunity to develop a strong academic and personal foundation.”