RIVER FALLS — When the pandemic hit and teachers were forced to adapt to delivering instruction online, Magara Maeda was already ahead of the curve.

The University of Wisconsin-River Falls senior lecturer has been teaching Japanese language virtually for years as part of the UW System’s Collaborative Language Program. With smaller universities unable to offer many modern language courses, CLP’s interactive video conference system allows one instructor to broadcast to students throughout the state.

“Beyond the classroom walls, I always had to be so innovative in how to bring the students from different campuses together across that physical distance,” Maeda said. “I was always trying to use different tools.”

Her work was recognized by the American Association of Teachers of Japanese with the organization’s 2020 Teacher Award in the college category. She accepted the award during the AATJ fall conference in October, held online due to the pandemic.

“It is clear that you excel in all of the areas that we want to recognize and honor with this award: quality and innovative teaching, service to the profession and to the community, participation in professional development activities, and advocacy for your program and Japanese language education as a whole,” AATJ president Junko Mori wrote in her award letter.

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Maeda said she welcomes the challenges of virtual teaching, including coming up with “plan B” when technology problems get in the way.

“Try to be flexible,” she said. “That’s the key when you’re teaching online.”

The Japanese native got her start teaching conversational English in her home country. Thankful for the help she received from Americans when learning English, Maeda said she decided to give back by teaching Japanese in the U.S.

Learning a language has a number of benefits, she said, including tolerance and appreciation of different cultures.

Employers have acknowledged the importance of cross-culture communication, said Dean Yohnk, dean of the UWRF College of Arts and Sciences.

“When you learn a language like Spanish or Japanese, it prepares you to be a future employee and citizen who not only understands the language, but can better understand the culture behind that language,” Yohnk said.

Though Spanish majors and minors continue to attract students at UWRF and across the UW System, other languages are struggling with enrollment, he said.

That’s where innovative teachers like Maeda come in.

“She's made it possible to deliver Japanese, not only to our students at River Falls but other students in the UW (System), and that's been quite an endeavor of distinction for her,” Yohnk said.

For more information on the UWRF Modern Language program, visit www.uwrf.edu/MODL.