Humanities teacher Letitia Zwickert inspires students to connect with world

Laaiba Mahmood, Staff Writer

Humanities teacher Letitia Zwickert has been teaching at Naperville Central for nine years. After taking globally focused courses during high school, Zwickert pursued a major in political science and a minor in French at Illinois State University (ISU), paving the way for lifelong connections, global opportunities and future educational pursuits.

“It was the lovely teachers in my life that inspired my interest in the world,” Zwickert said. “One of my favorite teachers, who taught a wonderful, globally focused class, presented me with opportunities to learn more about the world.”

The continual exposure to an increasingly globalized society allowed her to develop a broader view of the world, Zwickert says. Her experiences, both at home and abroad, have shaped her worldview and continue to influence the way she impacts the world today.

In high school, Zwickert received the opportunity to be a student ambassador to what was known as the U.S.S.R. at that time. After a nine-month study period, she spent three weeks in the U.S.S.R. and the impact on her worldview was profound.

“A lot of times we perceive places as one thing and the U.S.S.R. seemed dark and cold to me,” Zwickert said. “[But when] I sat in local parks and spoke with kids my age [I realized] it was a beautiful place. The trip was incredibly enriching and is also what changed my perspective on the world.”

Still infatuated with the interconnectedness of the world while in college, Zwickert started a student exchange program between ISU and Institut de Touraine, in Tours, France This gave her the opportunity to fully immerse herself in the French culture and pursue an internship tied to her global interests.

“Along with learning more about the French language, I worked in Brussels and Strasbourg by […] creating an internship for myself at the European Parliament,” Zwickert said.

These two events were pivotal in shaping Zwickert’s future education and career. She went on to pursue two master’s degrees — one in International Relations and the other in Secondary Education — at Loyola university Chicago.

A few years ago, Zwickert became the first K-12 teacher to receive the Fulbright-Schuman Scholarship award. Using the grant she earned through the award, Zwickert spent six months in a small village on the border of France and Luxembourg.

“Because of a study tour i went on with ISU, I was able to apply for and receive the Fulbright-Schuman scholarship,” Zwickert said. “I was worked in Belgium, Luxembourg and France as a visiting scholar at three universities and conducted my own research.“

Along with her international experiences, Zwickert has brought global awareness to the Chicagoland area. Through her connections at ISU, she introduced the Euro Challenge competition to the school in 2015.

“Because of some of my connections with the EU center at ISU, I was able to find the Euro Challenge competition,” Zwickert said. “Euro Challenge is really amazing because it challenges freshmen and sophomores to learn more about economics.”

Freshman and sophomore students who have participated have found it to be a rewarding experience. Neil Kasbekar, currently a junior at Central, was a participant in the competition last year.

“Euro Challenge was an unforgettable experience,” Kasbekar said. “Zwickert not only gave me the incredible opportunity, but so much more. She brought our team to the UN and arranged meetings with economists working at the EU.”

After the highly charged presidential election cycle last year, Zwickert created a dialogue series in order to create a common space where people could engage in open conversation. These events consisted of two panel discussions and a workshop which provided ways for students, parents and educators discuss issues in the community and abroad.

During the three events, students, teachers and parents engaged in direct conversation with each other. Anisa Qadri, a freshman at Benedictine University, attended the dialogue series events this past spring. She was also a panel speaker for the first event in the series.

“When I was initially asked to speak on the panel, I was elated and truly grateful for the opportunity to speak about what I believe in,” said Qadri. “It’s really important to have conversations and be educated about global matters because it’s the world we live in and the people we will be around forever. It’s better to ask questions rather than to live ignorant, and this panel provided the opportunity for questions to be asked.”

Over the summer, Zwickert visited Sullivan High School, located in Chicago. There she met the director for the school’s refugee and immigrant welcome center.

“When she showed me the space for their welcome center, my heart sank,” Zwickert said.

Underfunded and understaffed, the former library looked as though it had been ransacked. This led Zwickert to recruit the help of some students, including Nora Lullo, a junior at Central, to raise funds to aid Sullivan High School in the construction of their welcome center. In total, $178 were raised, surpassing the goal of $150.

“Mrs. Zwickert has always inspired me, so when she asked if I could help fundraise I immediately said yes,” Lullo said. “It’s important to be involved in our community because it’s our responsibility to help others as much as we can, especially those who are our age [and] live so close to us, yet face much harder lives.”

Zwickert shared that her main goal when creating events or connecting with the world is to include students in the conversation. Through these opportunities and more she hopes to do the same for her students as her teachers did for her.

“If it weren’t for other people who inspire me or for other people who do incredible jobs — and I just try my best to either replicate or build off of those — I wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything,” Zwickert said. “So it’s not about me, it’s about the students, and it’s about what they can do.”