Students walk into the Aerobics room C200 with their colorful yoga mats in hand, they find a place to position themselves as the instructor sits cross-legged on top of an orange yoga mat and a white fabric. The music playing in the background is soft and soothing. The students sit on their mats, go into their meditation position, slowly rest their hands on their knees, take a deep breath and close their eyes ready to begin their yoga session.
Adjunct professor and department associate Gloria Montebruno, a certified yoga instructor and Japanese professor, reminds her students something her first yoga teacher would say and resonates with her to this day, “It’s not about how flexible your body is, it’s about how flexible your mind is.”
Montebruno was born in Torino, Italy, and her interest in languages developed early. She grew up bilingual, speaking Italian and French. She attended a catholic school where she was also taught English.
“By the time I finished elementary school I was trilingual and according to my mom I always had this interest in foreign languages,” Montebruno said.
She also had a deep interest in East Asian culture and when she attended University of Torino for her undergraduate degree she majored in Japanese language and culture and minored in Russian language and culture.
“Those days was when Soviet Union was falling apart and there was an interest with learning Russian so, I picked Russian but Japanese has always been my favorite,” Montebruno said.
She spent two summers at the University of Moscow and was trained as a simultaneous interpreter and translator. She came to the United States briefly in 1993 to do research in UCLA for her undergraduate thesis but went back to Italy to defend and present her thesis. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1994.
Montebruno earned her Ph.D in East Asian languages and culture from USC in 2003.
In Italy, she was initially trained to do translation not to speak the language, she said. The Japanese she learned was formal and not conversational.
“When I went to USC graduate school, my professors there were like ‘Oh my God Gloria you are not talking to the emperor,’” she said. “It wasn’t conversational Japanese. I picked that up once I was at USC with the teaching assistants there and friends and started traveling back and forth going to Japan.”
Montebruno has been teaching at ULV since fall of 2007. Initially, she started teaching writing, but when looking through the University’s catalog she came across a Japanese course. The professor who had taught it had passed away years before Montebruno came to ULV, she said. Montebruno approached the chair of the Modern Languages department and associate professor of Spanish, Ann Hills, and asked to offer the course again. It has been in motion since fall 2010.
“She single-handedly revived the Japanese Program from the ground up by offering the beginning classes and then creating entirely new curriculum, allowing students to continue on to intermediate and advanced coursework,” said Hills. “With her help, we are able to offer a minor in Japanese.”
Montebruno says recent studies show that languages like Japanese, Chinese, Arabic and Korean require 2000 hours of study to speak fluently, three times more than languages such as Spanish or French. Therefore, understanding the complexity of it (Japanese has three different alphabets) she has a system to help her students.
Montebruno invites the international Japanese students on campus to class and breaks them into groups. The traditional students practice the language carrying out a conversation in Japanese. Montebruno said she organizes events where both the traditional and Japanese students get together, go to Little Tokyo or meet for dinner.
“Most of all, I found that when my students see the Japanese students struggling with English then they understand,” she said. “So, some of them have actually created wonderful friendships because they help each other. One helps with English and the other helps with Japanese, that’s amazing.”
“The students she brings in become our best friends even after a single session,” said senior foreign languages major, Tahil Sharma. “They are kind and considerate to help us at every point we have a problem; it makes the process of learning Japanese more confident and more legitimate.”
Since her first trip to Japan in the late 80s, Montebruno has visited the country numerous times. However, her most memorable trip was her visit to Hiroshima with students in January 2013.
She created a short-term study abroad program where she wrote a grant to the Japan Foundation for funds to take students to Japan, she said. Ten students, both graduate and undergraduate, traveled with her. It was Montebruno’s first time in Hiroshima and it changed her life.
“I’ve always believed in the peaceful application of nuclear energy but traveling to Hiroshima, changed it,” she said. “It was a life-changing experience. Since then, I started doing a lot of research, first I looked back on the history, the decision to drop the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Interim Provost Jonathan Reed and Hills were the main supporters of Montebruno’s January trip to Japan with students.
“Nothing can replace the experience of physically being in a place, particularly a place like Hiroshima with its storied past and connection to US and world history,” said Hills.
“I think that’s when they get it, connecting through the culture. Because here you can teach as much as you want but you have to touch it, you have to see it,” Montebruno said.
Beside the historical and cultural experience the students had at Japan, they were also able to practice the language. To her students, Montebruno said, she is known as Sensei, the Japanese word for teacher.
“They would come up and say, ‘Sensei I was able to order my own food!’” Montebruno said. “That is important to them because I can see the motivation.”
Montebruno is also a registered yoga instructor since 2007. Initially, she found yoga in 2000 when she started having lower back problems. She now practices, Ying Yoga which is a passive kind of yoga where you hold a position for an extended period of time, she said.
“Yoga is a lifestyle and I was very fortunate to have teachers that would tell me, you practice yoga when you go for a walk with your dog, that’s yoga and I embrace that,” Montebruno said.
Yoga has taught Montebruno to be patient, to smile and to have compassion, she said.
“I have always been an overachiever and I’ve been very hard on myself and it taught me to let go, it taught me that I don’t control anybody. I just don’t,” Montebruno said.
For Montebruno, teaching yoga at ULV has been a positive experience, she said, with over 40 people enrolled last semester and students taking the class more than once.
“It’s a place where you forget your stress and worries for a bit,” said sophomore kinesiology major Cristal Montiel. “She makes us put away our cell phones and forget what is going on behind the classroom door.”
Bernarda Carranza can be reached at email@example.com.