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May 6, 2013

Keenan and Zaleski named university co-valedictorians

By Patrick Elder

Justine Keenan, valedictorian, in France

Justine Keenan (far right) with fellow CSU students on top of Puy de Dome, a dormant volcanic mountain in Clermont-Ferrand, Auvergne (France).

Justine Marie Keenan and Kelly Renee Zaleski will be the university co-valedictorians during the spring commencement ceremonies. Keenan will represent Colleges of Engineering, Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, and Science and Health Professions in the morning ceremony. Zaleski will represent Colleges of Business, Urban Affairs, Education and Human Services, and the School of Nursing in the afternoon ceremony.   

Keenan was also selected as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLASS) valedictorian and will be honored at the CLASS Scholar’s Dinner on May 2. A linguistics and French double major, Keenan was viewed by the selection committee as an embodiment of Cleveland State’s commitment to multiculturalism and diversity.

“I don’t know if I really feel any different,” Keenan said. “Mostly, I feel a big sense of gratitude to the professors who supported me through all of it. I didn’t even know I was eligible yet, and I already had an email from my professor saying that they were going to submit a letter of recommendation for me. It’s a little surreal.”

Like most students entering college, Keenan wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. However, she did know what she loved: languages.

“I didn’t really know what linguistics was, but I knew it had to do with languages,” Keenan said. “I think I didn’t really know until the end of my freshman year that I wanted to teach English to speakers of other languages, but it was the perfect thing I had been waiting for.”

“She’s a very smart student, but also not assuming,” said Annie Jouan-Westlund, associate professor of French at Cleveland State. “She’s always looking deeper, trying to get into things to research further to better understand the topic. Very open-minded, culturally speaking, too. I could tell she had experience working with other cultures.”

Keenan participated in the study abroad program in France led by Professor Jouan-Westlund, where she spent one month learning about French language and culture. While there, her passion for helping refugees inspired her to undertake a research project to discover how that country teaches and integrates their refugee populations into French society.

“I would say that’s the most impressive project I’ve seen in all the years that I’ve done the program, without hesitation,” Jouan-Westlund said. “She’s really able to put herself in the place of a person from another culture, which helped her identify the reasons why things are done differently in France.”

Back in Ohio, Keenan’s desire to help refugee populations through teaching English manifested itself even further. On almost any night of the week one could probably find Keenan at Lakewood Christian Church, teaching the English language to non-English speakers — mostly refugees from Nepal called the Lhotshampa. What started as volunteer one-on-one tutoring became an internship as an instructor of a beginner-level adult English class.

“I think that getting to know a group of people from a different culture really shows you things that maybe your own culture takes for granted,” Keenan said. “They ended up treating me like a queen. They were giving me more than I was giving back.”

During her internship, Keenan advocated for increasing field trips and practical teaching methods. For example, instead of simply having a lesson on past-tense verbs, the lesson would teach about past-tense verbs while also showing how to do laundry. Her innovative approach to teaching the Lhotshampans did more than simply teach them English — it helped integrate them into American society.

“What was interesting was that in France they emphasized not just the language, but the whole integration process,” Keenan said. “That really influenced my ideas. Learning another language isn’t just a school subject. It’s something that has a major impact on their lives and the quality of living for that person. If you can help someone do that, then it’s a really great experience.”

Keenan has even gone so far as to undertake two original research projects aimed at improving teaching methods for refugees and other non-native English speakers. In one she is examining aspects of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese language and culture and its effects on the integration of the Lhotshampa people into American society. In her experimental linguistics class she is researching the prevalence of “idea metaphors” in everyday speech. These metaphors can pose problems for non-native speakers attempting to learn any language, including English.

“When you say ‘pay a visit’ you’re actually using a money word,” Keenan said. “I never thought about it as being a metaphor before. It just seems so natural. My research is to actually find out if the examples they used are still prevalent among native speakers. Then maybe I can use that to show for English-as-a- second-language courses which kind of metaphor would be good to teach, and which ones aren’t so useful.”

When Keenan chose Cleveland State for its flexibility, she had no clue just how many opportunities there were for working with diverse cultures, including the Lhotshampans.

“When I got here I realized just how diverse it is,” Keenan said. “If you walk half a mile that way, there’s a deaf community because there’s a deaf church. I just walked across the street and there was the International Services Center with all these Nepali speaking people.

“I had the flexibility to make this experience what I wanted it to be for me. Nowhere in my college schedule was it planned for me to get involved in working with refugees and to develop a passion for it. Finding something I was passionate about made it easy to keep going.”

This is a corrected version of the article published in the May 2nd print edition, in which Justine Keenan was identified as the only valedictorian.