Spotlight Iowa City: Well-traveled in geography, writing

BY JORDAN FRIES | MARCH 09, 2010 7:30 AM

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Carol Severino has lived on the fringes of the Amazon rain forest. She’s taught creative writing to the indigenous people of Ecuador. Yet the University of Iowa associate professor said the prospect of “country living” in Iowa generated just as much excitement.

“It’s really beautiful to get out of that super urban lifestyle,” said Severino (who has also lived in Chicago and New York) about her home near the Coralville Reservoir. “We hunt and fish, kayak, walk in the woods, pick berries. I’m really making the most of it.”

The multitasking Severino has been the director of the UI’s Writing Center for nearly two decades, presiding over unprecedented growth. The mother of two has accumulated a wealth of other experiences to dwell on throughout her journey.

The self-described “sheltered teen” originally wished to attend Oberlin College, in Ohio, to pursue a budding musical career (she played the drums) in the 1960s, but instead, she received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Valparaiso University, in Indiana.

She carried that language experience into a job as a social worker in East Chicago, where she worked primarily with non-English speaking families to help them financially and socially.

During an “eye-opening” period when she ran a Cuban-refugee program, Severino, who also speaks some Italian, said her Spanish improved dramatically.

She recalled a particular moment when a single mother and her child came in to collect a monthly $115 check, which they depended on for their entire income.

“That job was more rewarding than any school experience,” Severino said. “It taught me so much about life, children, and other cultures.”

Somewhere in the midst of receiving a master’s in applied linguistics and a doctorate in English from the University of Illinois-Chicago, Severino got married and gave birth to twin boys.

When her children were 9, she accepted the offer to direct the UI Writing Center, leaving Chicago behind.

“I had never heard of Iowa before, and I wasn’t too happy to be leaving my friends behind,” said Severino’s son, Mike. “But I’ve definitely changed my allegiances since then.”

Mike eventually joined the Peace Corps and lived in Quito, Ecuador, for more than two years and married a local woman.

That’s when he arranged for his mother to stay with a host family for a few months in 2006 in a town called Tena, located on the edge of the Amazon rain forest.

There, Severino added another language to her arsenal after learning Quichua, an indigenous language. She returned to Ecuador in the spring of 2008 and stayed until June, teaching numerous classes for local children and beginning a writing center there.

She channeled that experience into her work reviving the previously moribund writing center at the UI.

When Severino, also an associate professor of rhetoric and a tutor, inherited the center in 1990, roughly 150 students used the facilities.

The center lacked computers and required students to use the tutoring service twice-a-week if they wanted it at all.

Severino started the Writing Fellows Program six years ago, training UI students to become tutors for the center. She developed a website, opened the doors for all students, initiated online tutoring sessions, and spearheaded development of five satellite centers throughout the campus.

“Carol is tireless and deeply committed to the one-on-one education of the Writing Center,” said Megan Knight, the assistant director of the center.

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