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Northeast Woman: Professor, Bogotá Native Drives Efforts In Diversity, Gender Equality

December 2, 2018

Growing up in Bogotá, Colombia, the daughter of two lawyers, Yamile Silva assumed she would follow in her parents’ footsteps and become an attorney one day.

But rather than showing a predilection for debate and heated courtroom exchanges, Silva instead exhibited a passion for conversation, culture and the written word.

Living in the capital city until she was 23 fueled this love of communing with others and exploring the arts, Silva said. A metropolis of about 10 million citizens, Bogotá offered an always-warm climate and diversity that made it a study in humanity.

“It’s a vibrant city in terms of culture,” Silva described. “Very cosmopolitan. I remember always going to the movies every two to three days. I was outgoing, involved in dance, theater, and I loved reading aloud.”

When she began her collegiate studies, Silva’s love for words flourished in literature classes rather than pre-law courses.

“I was very passionate in those classes,” Silva said. “One that changed me was Latin American Women Writers. The teacher recognized in me potential and put me in touch with graduate schools.”

She went on to attend the University of Massachusetts for her master’s degree and doctorate, and she spent her first year after grad school in a visiting position at a college in Maine. The temporary position meant that Silva needed to find a tenured track, and as an immigrant, she especially needed to connect with a school that would be willing to sponsor her green card.

She accepted an offer from University of Scranton and joined its Department of World Languages and Cultures in 2009. In May, Silva was named department chair, which translates into overseeing a staff that hails from across the globe and includes four Fulbright Scholars.

“It’s fantastic, because we are a really diverse department,” Silva said. “It’s amazing to hear all the languages. It’s really enriching but a lot of work.”

Much of Silva’s teachings have focused on women writers, an important carry-over from her dissertation, which studied the letters of colonial widows who appealed to the king of Spain for help in the aftermath of their husbands’ deaths.

“Women have not been included in canonical study and syllabi,” Silva said. “I think it’s important to disseminate their work and for students to know about them.”

She furthers this goal by serving as president of the Association of Gender and Sexuality Studies, an international organization. Silva also gives herself to other academic and literate efforts, including the Festival de la Paraba in Puerto Rico, which promotes writers of the Caribbean, another oft-overlooked contingent of talent.

Locally, Silva volunteers with Catholic Social Services and encourages democratic involvement by registering voters. It’s a passionate pursuit for the Clarks Summit resident, who officially became a United States citizen in May 2017 after many years of applications, paperwork, interviews and fundraising.

“The ceremony is very moving,” she said of her swearing-in. “You can vote and be part of decisions. It’s so important to put your voice in and claim your right to be heard. I belong to this country now.”

Aside from her pride in being an American, Silva takes great joy in joining the fabric of Northeast Pennsylvania’s community, too.

“I love the mountains. I love how diverse it has become in the last year or two. It’s given me many opportunities, like amazing friends, support and the network that helps immigrants,” Silva said. “It’s a place of many possibilities. I’m really lucky.”

Contact the writer: pwilding@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9100 x5369; @pwildingTT on Twitter

Meet Yamile Silva

At home: Lives in Clarks Summit with her husband of five years, Hank Willenbrink. She also has a daughter, Laura Garcia-Silva, 22.

At work: Chairwoman of the Department of World Languages and Cultures as well as an associate professor of Spanish at University of Scranton

Inspirations: Her hard-working parents, her daughter, her husband’s always-positive attitude, and traveling to learn from other people and cultures in the places they come from

Aspirations: To continue networking to mentor younger faculty locally and abroad, and to spend a year at the United States-Mexico border helping immigrants

Diversions: Reading and watching movies

Aversions: Liars, people who don’t respect freedom of speech, science-deniers, and people who discriminate and don’t believe in equality

Quote: “A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.” — Margaret Atwood

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