Featured Colleague: Nelson Rafael Placa Goes from English Language Learner to Director of Language ProgramsShare
By Dani Moritz-Long
He grew up learning English in school, so when Puerto Rican native Nelson Rafael Placa, now director of continuing education, moved to Illinois with his family at age 15, he wasn’t all too concerned. Shortly after arriving stateside, though, he experienced the shock of his life. The then-overconfident teenager’s expectations of easily and fluently conversing with native English speakers was in no way his reality.
“You think you know the language, but when you come to an English-speaking country you realize you have no idea how to speak or communicate,” Nelson said, recalling the less-than-seamless transition from Puerto Rico to the Midwest. Laughing, he added, “It was really hard, but [at least] I knew how to order a hamburger.”
Now, Nelson has come full-circle. He’s not only a fluent English speaker himself, but he supports hundreds of other non-English speakers through Valencia’s Continuing Education (CE) programs. Specifically, Nelson provides leadership for the Intensive English program (which primarily supports international students), English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) (which generally assists immigrants and other domestic English language learners) and the CE Client Service Center, which operates as Valencia’s intake center for all CE programs.
With a bachelor’s degree in multicultural education, an MBA and a pending doctorate degree in educational leadership, Nelson’s educational, professional and personal background and, in particular, his own challenges make him the perfect fit for his role.
“I sympathize with them [Valencia language students] because I’ve been in their shoes,” Nelson explained. “I see them trying to learn and see their struggles; I’ve been through the struggles myself when it comes to language. I think the fact that I was an ESOL student 30 years ago makes me able to see what we need to help them. When it comes to curriculum, I can work with the curriculum team to look at programs that can help, and when it comes to communicating with students when they’re trying to register, I can be of help to them as well.”
Nelson also leverages these shared experiences to go above and beyond his role as a mentor to students. For example, Nelson is currently working with one student who came to Florida from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. The student, Nelson explained, was a nurse in Puerto Rico who is now seeking employment in Central Florida and facing difficulties due to a language barrier.
“Once a week, he comes to my office and I do mock interviews with him in English, because I want him to get the job that he needs and wants,” Nelson said.
As someone from Puerto Rico himself, Nelson has a special passion for supporting students like this student, who came stateside seeking a new life after the deadly 2017 storm.
“It hits home,” Nelson said, “because I’m Puerto Rican myself. This devastation really turned a whole island around and devastated a whole entire community. It hits home because I still have family there. At the same time, what we’re doing is something positive to help the community.”
Specifically, Nelson said, CE programs have been able to support Hurricane Maria refugees by increasing access to programs, providing financial support and even greeting people at the airport to give them information about Valencia’s language programs.
Yet another way Nelson supports English language learners is through Disney Aspire, a new and quickly growing program implemented by the Walt Disney Company earlier this year that enables part-time and full-time hourly cast members to pursue education and training in any field of interest. This has manifested in a steep enrollment increase in English as a Second Language (ESOL) — one of the programs Nelson leads.
As it really is a small world after all, Nelson also offers direct support for the program as his brother, Nelson Manuel Placa (Nelson is a common name in the Placa family), not only teaches hospitality management at Valencia, but also works at Disney.
“My brother is always helping his employees [take advantage of Disney Aspire],” Nelson said. “He calls me once a week or so about helping one of his employees with Disney Aspire.”
Clearly, Nelson is fully committed to Valencia students. Commenting on his exceptional service and irrefutable passion, Lisa Eli, assistant vice president, global and continuing education, said, “He is passionate about education and is always available to his team to provide support and directions. He works well with all levels of staff to advance the mission of the College and to make CE programs accessible to the community.”
As if he doesn’t do enough, you’ll also find Nelson supporting education as a part-time New Student Experience (NSE) faculty member at the Poinciana Campus.
“NSE takes me back to 28 years ago when I first went to college,” Nelson said of Valencia’s innovative program. “I wish I had someone guiding me back then.”
Continuing, Nelson explained that, as a former assistant principal at Liberty High School, he enjoys the opportunity to work with high school students in Osceola County and teach students practical skills in a laid-back and fun environment.
In the few moments he does have to himself, you’ll find Nelson enjoying time with his family, which includes his wife and three children (two boys and one “princess”) — the oldest of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, also shares the name Nelson. (And if you’re curious, his son does fully intend to continue in the Nelson naming tradition — pending his future partner’s approval.)
Know of someone who embodies one of Valencia’s values (learning, people, diversity, access or integrity), who has been an employee for at least one year? 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.