While sitting in front of Locklin Hall as summer puts on its long-sleeve shirt and prepares for autumn’s wind, I asked Professor Iris Yolanda Van Derdys what she enjoys most about teaching at Springfield College.
Van Derdys sat beside me on an old wooden bench, wearing a sparkling diamond brooch with earrings, bracelets and rings to match. A smile swept across her face as she began to think.
“I enjoy teaching my classes. I like to be connected with the students, for me that’s very important,“
A chorus of “Hola!” burst through the entrance of Locklin as a group of girls gravitated towards Van Derdys. She talked back and forth with her old students about Facebook, their upcoming senior year, and their softball game that she brought candy and flowers to. There was no need for a follow up question about the connections she makes with her students.
Van Derdys was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Growing up, she moved around from the city to rural parts of the island, but one thing was consistent in her youth: her love for learning.
Van Derdys knew from a young age that she wanted to teach.
“The last place I thought I’d end up was in Massachusetts,” she said.
After getting her master’s degree in Public Administration in Puerto Rico, she came directly to Springfield to teach in the public school system. Eighteen years later, she is still in love with learning and still sharing that love with students.
Van Derdys teaches her Spanish classes in a lively way that not only helps students to learn the language but also to understand the culture and teach a few life lessons along the way.
“I give my time. I don’t have money, I can’t give money. But if I can say something positive…Sometimes I will sound like your professor, sometimes I will sound like your mother. Maybe not all of my students will learn Spanish, but maybe they will learn other things. It’s not only about the language, it’s about life,” she said.
One of her favorite classes was when she asked her daughter, who was a dance instructor at the time, to come to Springfield College and teach one of her classes.
“I asked my daughter, ‘Why don’t you come and teach my students some salsa and merengue steps?’ She agreed, I offered the option to my students and the class ended up being full,” she said. Not every professor can teach the language and the moves to go along with it, but in a class with Professor Van Derdys, you can be immersed in the heritage.
Van Derdys has been with Springfield College for 10 years, and for eight of those years, she has organized events for Hispanic Heritage month here on campus.
When she first arrived there were no events to speak of, but that did not last long at all. In a matter of weeks, she organized several different ways to show Springfield College the culture she was so proud of.
The festivities included live bands, poetry, food and vejigantes, which are folkloric characters in Puerto Rican festival celebrations who wear brightly colored, ornate masks of all colors and a costume with bat-like wings.
Van Derdys broadcasted to her classes that if they did not attend the events, they would get a zero in her class, but it is likely that the students would have attended regardless because of how passionate their professor was about what she had put together.
Aside from teaching at Springfield College and putting together events for Hispanic Heritage month, Van Derdys uses her free time to find other ways to give back to her community. For years, she was the mistress of ceremonies for poetry night at Salsarengue, a restaurant in Holyoke.
“The poetry nights were very diverse. There were people from Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Puerto Rico, of course. There was poetry in many different languages from Portuguese to Spanglish,” she said.
Van Derdys enjoyed participating in the poetry nights because, not only did it shine a light on those in her community who were normally too shy and humble to express themselves, but it also brought the Hispanic community together for more than one month out of the year.
She is not truly content unless she is giving back to her community.
So every Saturday morning around 9:35 a.m. she can be heard on WSPR 1270 dishing out advice on maintaining one’s health, both mentally and physically. She uses the radio time as a platform to urge her community to stay active in the city. She pushes citizens to vote and be involved in politics.
Because of how much she has given to her community, she is celebrated by the community. In 2012, she received a certificate of special congressional recognition and was chosen to be Western Massachusetts’ Puerto Rican Parade Godmother.
From professor to mistress of ceremonies to event planner, Van Derdys is constantly striving to help her community to grow.
Van Derdys is a spirited professor who teases her students by saying, “If my dogs can learn Spanish, then you can too!” This isn’t just a play on words, the native Spanish speaker has literally taught her Border collie and toy poodle Spanish.
Is there anything she can’t do?
We are fortunate here at Springfield College to have a professor who cares deeply for the people around her and who is willing to share her heritage with us!