A Call to Serve

June 02, 2020

By Adrienne Egolf

Photo by Scott Cook.

As associate dean of advising, Spanish professor Gabriel Barreneche is living out his commitment to service learning and mentorship.

Throughout Gabriel Barreneche’s life, he’s answered a call to serve others. “I think it goes back to the way I was brought up,” he explains. “That sense of humanity and moral guidance has always been there.”

For Barreneche, this lifelong commitment to community translated into the pursuit of a career in education. He grew up in southern New Jersey, the son of Cuban immigrants—a childhood that, he says, instilled a set of clear values in him early on—values that, along with his all-time favorite movie—pointed him in a clear direction.

“I watched Dead Poets Society all the time,” says Barreneche, “and I wanted to be like that teacher and really inspire young people.”

He never envisioned himself as an administrator, though. So it’s with a touch of surprise in his voice that Barreneche speaks about the passion he now feels for his current role as associate dean of advising. In this position, which has most recently involved serving as the academic representative in the planning process for the newly opened Kathleen W. Rollins Hall—the College’s new center for applied liberal arts learning—Barreneche says he’s able to help spread the core values of Rollins like never before.

“There is just something about being able to have a broader reach,” he says, “touching more than maybe the 45 students I would have in my classes as a professor per semester. As associate dean of advising, I have an impact on a broader swath of the campus.”

Filling a Gap

After earning his bachelor’s degree in Spanish from Boston College, Barreneche spent a year supporting a housing program for migrant farmworkers in California as a volunteer with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps before going on to earn his master’s and a PhD in Hispanic languages and literature from UCLA. It was here while working as a teaching assistant that he really came to understand the impact relationships can have on a student’s path to success.

“One of my students asked for a letter of recommendation for medical school,” he says, “and I explained to the student that I was flattered but that as a Spanish teacher, I may not be the best person to comment on his ability to become a physician. I said, ‘What about one of your chem or bio professors?’ And he said, ‘Well you’re the only one of my teachers who knows my name.’”

For Barreneche it was a life-changing, career-defining moment.

“I wanted to teach somewhere where mentoring was important.”

Whether it’s digging into complex problems in the classroom or literally digging into the soil alongside farmworkers on an Immersion experience, Gabriel Barreneche is a guiding force for Rollins students.

Strides Toward Service

Barreneche came to Rollins in 2003 as a Spanish professor—it was his first job offer after graduate school, and it just happened to be the perfect fit.

“It was everything I was hoping and looking for,” he says. “Small classes, liberal arts curriculum, educating students broadly and holistically in a wonderful location with a lot of diversity.”

And it was a place on the brink of becoming even more in line with Barreneche’s worldview. As a professor, he joined a cohort of like-minded colleagues to spearhead the earliest iterations of Rollins’ service learning curriculum.

“There was a group of us who were kind of trailblazers in a sense, opening up the pathways of service learning and connecting it to our classroom experiences, and that led to opportunities to mentor faculty who were new to this pedagogy as well. Getting them to imagine what this would look like in their discipline and in their courses.”

As a faculty fellow for community engagement, Barreneche has spent years mentoring faculty who are new to the field of service learning, helping them design courses that engage with the community and guiding them through the challenges of unpredictable coursework. The faculty fellows vet all courses that seek the community engagement designation, using a rubric for best practices in the field of community-focused learning.

An Even Bigger Impact

In 2015, Barreneche transitioned from a solely academic role to an administrative position as associate dean of advising, where he’s been focused on bringing Rollins Gateway—the College’s unique educational vision—to life. It’s a move that quickly made him realize that he was better positioned than ever to serve the campus in the capacity that was dearest to him: mentorship.

Barreneche oversees all things academic advising, not only guiding students through the process of making meaning of their diverse educational experiences, but also mentoring faculty members. Among other responsibilities, he leads the R-Compass Advising Mentors program, where faculty learn the importance of skills like listening before jumping in with advice, approaching each case with empathy and patience, and thinking outside the box to help students solve problems.

From his new office in Kathleen W. Rollins Hall, Barreneche is seeing all of his work focused on advising and mentorship quite literally come to the center of the Rollins experience, where students can now more easily than ever take advantage of this invaluable resource.

“Rollins Hall tells everyone on campus and everyone who’s thinking about coming to campus that these are the experiences and values we hold most near and dear,” says Barreneche. “It’s so inspiring to be around really dedicated, creative students looking to solve the problems of the world, and it gives me a lot of satisfaction to see that the education we offer at Rollins is being put into practice. It’s out in the world doing good, and that is what Rollins Gateway is all about.”

Pillar of His Profession

USA Best Book Awards for Education/Academic, 2014
Awarded for his publication, Educational Technology for the Global Village

Finalist — Don Quijote Awards Hispanic Professional of the Year, 2017
Recognizes businesses and individuals who are committed to excellence in their work and contribute to the development of the region’s Hispanic community

Cornell Distinguished Faculty Award, 2014
Awarded annually to up to three Rollins faculty members to recognize exceptional professional accomplishments in at least two of the faculty’s three primary emphases of teaching, research, and service

Engaged Scholarship Research Award, Florida Campus Compact, 2015
Recognizes faculty and programs for their commitment to helping students develop the skills of active citizenship through service learning and engaged scholarship

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