Guten Tag! Mark Petrarca (right) and Sandra Mitchell (left) comprise the German portion of the languages department. Petrarca’s favorite part of teaching is seeing students comprehend the material. “I enjoy working with my students, and I get a lot of satisfaction when I see the light bulb come on. When I see them being successful, it gives me a sense of achievement. It makes all my effort worthwhile,” Petrarca said. (Melissa Krainer)
Guten Tag! Mark Petrarca (right) and Sandra Mitchell (left) comprise the German portion of the languages department. Petrarca’s favorite part of teaching is seeing students comprehend the material. “I enjoy working with my students, and I get a lot of satisfaction when I see the light bulb come on. When I see them being successful, it gives me a sense of achievement. It makes all my effort worthwhile,” Petrarca said.

Melissa Krainer

Petrarca and Mitchell’s Journey

November 30, 2022

Sandra Mitchell and Mark Petrarca have seen the Brandenburger Gate and the Schwarzwald with their own eyes. Now they provide the same experience to their students, in the classroom.

Mark Petrarca

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Melissa Krainer

¡Hola! Guten Tag! Bonjour! The World Languages department poses for a photo. From left to right: Dane Leone, Sandra Mitchell, Mark Petrarca, Veronica Skomra, Patricia Leonard and Jessica Patton.

Petrarca started teaching Spanish 32 years ago. Eight years afterward, he added German to his repertoire. 

Petrarca graduated from three different universities: Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP). He attended Penn State on an Army ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) scholarship and received a degree in Spanish and linguistics. During his time spent there, Petrarca competed against other students with similar majors and received recognition for excellence in Spanish.

“I actually won an award at Penn State for Foreign Language–it was the John White Award for Excellence in Spanish–my junior year. It was an exam. I competed against 30 Spanish majors, some of whom were seniors,” Petrarca said. “I wanted to take that money and study in Salamanca, Spain, because [the Spanish classes] wanted to go on an exchange to Salamanca, Spain, but I couldn’t because I had to go to Fort Bragg, North Carolina for my military training between my junior and senior year.”

Petrarca joined the army after graduation and ended up being stationed in Germany. His language degree allowed him to work as a translator and analyst.

“When I joined the army, I ended up being stationed in Germany eventually. I did live three years in Germany and at the station, I picked up a little bit of German. The army took advantage of my language degree, and I was stationed at the National Security Agency. I worked as an intelligence analyst and translator and then I went to Germany,” Petrarca said.

After his service in the army, he attended the University of Pittsburgh and later IUP for his doctorate.

I just followed my heart, and I majored in Spanish and linguistics.”

— Mark Petrarca

“After I got out of the army, I went back to Pitt to get my teaching certification. I earned an MAT which is a Masters of Arts in the Teaching of Foreign Language. I earned that from Pitt in 1991 and since I’ve been at the high school, starting in 1992, through 2002, I earned my doctorate in applied linguistics and rhetoric from IUP. I did that while I was teaching full time. That’s why it took 10 years,” Petrarca said. 

Petrarca formally studied four languages besides English in college: Russian, Polish, Italian and Spanish. His Italian and Polish heritage inspired him to go into the languages field.

“I suppose it goes back to my grandparents. All four of my grandparents were European immigrants. My mother’s parents were Polish. My father’s parents were from Italy. So, I heard foreign languages a lot. When I went to church, I mean as a kid-I belong to a Polish parish, where they were still using the Latin and Polish for the homily (that changed in 1965 and they went to the monarchy)-there were a lot of people in the churches that were immigrant generation, so I heard [foreign languages] a lot. Obviously, it was kind of cool,” Petrarca said.

Petrarca’s Spanish teacher in high school and his enjoyment of the language inspired him to choose a Spanish major.

“When I was in high school, I wanted to study German, but they didn’t offer it. I chose Spanish because it was the closest thing to Italian, which is my heritage. I just liked the subject, and I had a good teacher. His name was Mr. Seymour, Bishop Carroll. I just enjoyed the subject. When I got my ROTC scholarship-they don’t care what you studied, [just] get a degree-and I didn’t know what to major in. I just followed my heart, and I majored in Spanish and linguistics,” Petrarca said.

Sandra Mitchell

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Sandra Mitchell

Smile! Mitchell traveled to the North Sea and the Black Forest in Germany with her family over the summer. She is very excited to be able to share German culture with her students. “I am glad that we are offering German at Altoona. I’m not sure if once Dr. Petrarca retires and I no longer work here if German would still be an option. It’s harder and harder to find language teachers, especially for German,” Mitchell said. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Mitchell)

Mitchell has been teaching for 18 years total. She taught in Tyrone for ten years before transferring to the language department in Altoona.

“I didn’t start out as a language teacher. I started out as an elementary education teacher. Then, I taught middle school history, science and computers. It wasn’t until Altoona called me because their German teacher had left, that they asked [me] ‘Don’t you want to teach German here?’,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell lived in Mainz, Germany for the first 19 years of her life. She traveled to State College after graduating from high school.

“I initially came to State College as an au pair. An au pair is kind of like a nanny. I lived with a family for one year while I took care of their child, and then I met my husband. Well, at the time he was my boyfriend,” Mitchell said. “The only way to stay was to study here, and then after I finished my studies we got married.”

In high school, Mitchell worked with children outside of the classroom. She tutored English and interacted with children of various ages. This experience inspired her to take a teaching career path.

I think I can bring an authentic experience to the class because this is my natural culture, my own culture.”

— Sandra Mitchell

“I think I always have known that I wanted to be a teacher because I always worked with children. I was a camp counselor. I taught Sunday school as a high school student. I was a gymnastics instructor. I tutored English, and I babysat a ton,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell attended three different universities to finish her education: one in Germany, and two in the United States.

“I attended Mt. Aloysius college for my Bachelor’s, and St. Francis for my Master’s. I have a certificate from the University of Jena to teach German as a second language,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell believes that being from another part of the world allows her to provide a unique classroom setting.

I think I can bring an authentic experience to the class because this is my natural culture, my own culture. I still learn what the American culture is a lot of times,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell’s favorite part of teaching is seeing her students succeed.

“[My favorite part of teaching is] being with the students and the excitement when they are able to communicate in another language,” Mitchell said.

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