Featured Colleague: Milena Zaleckaite Moved from Russian-Occupied Lithuania to the US to Pursue her Dreams

By Dani Moritz-Long

Growing up in Russian-occupied Lithuania, Milena Zaleckaite, adjunct professor, English for Academic Purposes (EAP), grew up without the kinds of childhood luxuries most of us take for granted. Sweet treats and toys, for example, were far and few in-between in her war-torn home. But, while her childhood was rife with hardship, Milena is grateful for the lessons her upbringing afforded her. For example, the Russian occupation sparked her learning of Russian and infused in her an ability to innovate and make economical choices. Her upbringing also inspired her emigration to America, where she eventually found her home at Valencia.

“With only $50 in my pocket and big plans in my head, I landed in Orlando,” Milena recalls. “As a naive 20-year-old, I learned multiple valuable lessons about American culture and people. When I recall most of them, I can’t help but smile.”

These lessons spanned from surprising living arrangements to language barriers — all of which carried messages about the power of perseverance.

“During my first months in the U.S., I lived in an apartment on Orange Blossom Trail, which before moving there sounded like a beautiful place to live,” she said. “I imagined orange trees and beautiful blossoms, but instead I saw busy streets and heard never-ending honking. Months later, I walked into a store with a sign that said ABC thinking it was a daycare, and I could get a job there. It was a little confusing walking in there and finding a liquor store. Or, I recall another situation when I had my first job interview, and I learned that the word occupation may have meanings other than to be taken over by another country. To this day, I still wonder what the store manager was thinking about me when he asked me about my previous occupations and, instead of a list of jobs, he got a short history lesson on how Lithuania was occupied by Russia for over 50 years.”

Luckily, along the way, Valencia was there to help. Milena enrolled in the College as an international student and took EAP classes to help her learn English. In particular, she recalls feeling empowered by EAP Professor Wendy Wish-Bogue, who inspired Milena’s career path.

“It was in my EAP classes where I realized that I wanted to change lives, inspire people and help them feel included in Valencia’s classrooms,” Milena said. “I want to help people just like Ms. Wendy helped me.”

Hopeful to one day join Valencia’s faculty, Milena graduated from Valencia with an Associate in Arts, before earning a bachelor’s degree in English language from Rollins College and a master’s degree in education from Dominican University.

In 2010, her professional ambition to help students like her became a reality when she commenced her teaching career at Valencia. Here, Milena explains, she finds a constant flow of inspiration.

“I really appreciate this vibrant diversity at Valencia where there’s never a dull moment,” she said. “Valencia creates learning opportunities every step of the way for both students and educators. Valencia is like a rich soil where all kinds of plants and flowers are able to grow and bloom. In our Communications department, especially, there’s always a shoulder to lean on and someone to cheer you on. We are like a family.”

Furthermore, she said, “Valencia shapes people for the better. The College gives students an opportunity to open their minds by hosting discussions on controversial issues, building bridges between cultures so they would avoid wrong assumptions, labeling and stereotyping. When students leave Valencia, they are ready to make their community a better place, for Valencia raises them to be responsible, caring global citizens. Valencia graduates spread all these humanitarian ideas in their professional and social lives.”

Throughout her tenure at Valencia, Milena, too, has found ways to go above and beyond in shaping her students. She’s maintained her Associate Faculty Certification since 2010, participated in Destination and other professional development programs, contributed to helping students at the Writing Center and actively participated in contests, like West Campus’ annual Deck the Doors contest.

“Milena is an innovative instructor with a passion for student success,” said Amy Downs, instructional lab supervisor. “Her personal academic achievements allow her to serve as an exemplary model for EAP students in and out of the classroom. I frequently hear from students in the Communications Center how much they value her ongoing commitment to their academic success.”

Elizabeth Renn, dean, communications, commented, “Milena’s story is inspiring, especially for her students. To know how far she has come in learning English and now she is the professor! Her colleagues and I are fortunate to know someone with the fortitude and positive energy that Milena brings to every challenge she accepts.”

In her free time, you can find Milena reading up on language education, volunteering at various language centers to help immigrants improve their English and partaking in arts and crafts (especially with recycled materials).

Know of someone who embodies one of Valencia’s Values (learning, people, diversity, access or integrity), who has been an employee for one year or more? Send the colleague’s name to us at The_Grove@valenciacollege.edu. He or she might be one of our featured colleagues, subject to supervisor’s approval.


  • Karen Murray said:

    Kudos to Milena, who is a very creative and enthusiastic instructor. I'm proud she's my colleague!

    PMTue, 25 Jul 2017 18:37:06 +0000Tue, 25 Jul 2017 18:37:06 +0000pm17,6:37 pm

  • Karen Cowden said:

    We are all lucky to work alongside your positive energy and student-focused engagement. Plus, how wonderful our international students get to learn from a success story.

    PMTue, 25 Jul 2017 21:13:34 +0000Tue, 25 Jul 2017 21:13:34 +0000pm17,9:13 pm

  • Becca Toole said:

    Beautiful story! Thank you for sharing your experiences with us, Milena. Your colleagues and students are lucky to have you.

    AMWed, 26 Jul 2017 07:36:14 +0000Wed, 26 Jul 2017 07:36:14 +0000am17,7:36 am

  • Kate Baldridge-Hale said:

    Yeah, Milena! I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to work with you. I look forward to sharing lots more ideas in the future.

    AMWed, 26 Jul 2017 10:11:06 +0000Wed, 26 Jul 2017 10:11:06 +0000am17,10:11 am

  • Michael W. said:

    Keep up the great work, Milena!

    PMWed, 26 Jul 2017 13:22:31 +0000Wed, 26 Jul 2017 13:22:31 +0000pm17,1:22 pm

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