Hold onto your heart. In this episode, host Vilma Fuentes speaks with Lila Guertin, cardiovascular technology professor at SF, one month after the passing of Lila's mother Azza Guertin. Azza, a biology professor, was "Santa Fe-mous" for her glamour, humor, and commitment to science education at the college. Hear Lila share the international love story between her Baghdad-born mother and her New England-raised father, their world travels, curious culinary experiences, and what it was like to have teaching as a core family value. Take note: four of Azza's children and four of her grandchildren have now graduated from Santa Fe College.
Vilma Fuentes: 0:00
Welcome to Santa Fe College. This is Vilma Fuentes and our podcast on developing global citizens. We are joined today by a special member of the Santa Fe College community: Lila Guertin, who is professor of cardiovascular technology at the college, and she's here to talk to us about at least three generations but, certainly multiple people, who've been involved with Santa Fe through the years. All of them, of course, people in her family. So, Lila, welcome to the podcast.
Lila Guertin: 0:34
Thank you for having me.
Vilma Fuentes: 0:36
Um, so I think the story really needs to begin with your mom. Azza Guertin. Tell us about her. Who is she? When did she first become associated with Santa Fe?
Lila Guertin: 0:53
Well, my mom was a stay at home mom for the most part. And when the youngest of us turned five years old, she sought a part time job. She started working in the biology department at Santa Fe. I believe it was the early seventies, and she eventually became a full time member and she ended up with 35 years with the college. And she was so part of this college. She was so much a part of it, we all became a part of it.
Vilma Fuentes: 1:20
So when you say she was a stay at home mom, I don't know, I've got these images of these, like, Leave it to Beaver images, right? And and, um, this good old American mom staying at home in the sixties and maybe early seventies, but, um...
Lila Guertin: 0:00
That was not her
Vilma Fuentes: 1:36
Yeah, that wasn't her. She has a rather unique, and certainly very international, background. Both of your parents do. Tell us about that, please.
Lila Guertin: 1:44
Well, my mom is from the Middle East. She's from Baghdad, Iraq, and she came over to this country when she married my father. Um and so our home had a very different flavor than other homes. Um, for instance, my mom brought home skinks to do experiments on when she was getting her bachelors degree at the University of Florida. To this day, I'm not sure what she did with those skinks, but yes, so I don't think most people, including June Cleaver, had many skinks in their home in cages with mirrors. But that's what we grew up with, amongst other sort of unusual things. The food was different. The decorations in the home were different.
Vilma Fuentes: 2:23
Give us details, please. What do you mean the food was different? Did you not eat Mac and cheese?
Lila Guertin: 2:27
No, we did not eat Mac and cheese. My dad would have with every meal something called Humba, which he would order from India. They would get cases of this and it's pickled mango. And if,you ask me, I'm not sure what he ate that with every meal.
Vilma Fuentes: 2:42
Because he liked it!
Lila Guertin: 2:46
I'm sure it's a cool food these days, but yeah. So my mom would cook Arabic food and she did have a couple of cookbooks, one from New England, to sort of emulate the food that my father's mother cooked. So it was a mix between Middle Eastern and New England cooking. It was different.
Vilma Fuentes: 3:02
So how did your parents meet?
Lila Guertin: 3:04
Ah, that's an interesting story. My father had gone over to Baghdad, Iraq, to study for two years. He had met some Iraqis in Dearborn, Michigan, and converted to Islam and wanted to be with the with the people—with with his new family, as he called them. He went over there and he never did actually study. I think there may have been some paperwork hold up, but he studied my mom! Because he needed an English tutor and her mother was the Dean of Women of the University of Baghdad. And she connected with him somehow and connected my mother and father, and my mother was his Arabic tutor. My mom had a great sense if you were—unfortunately, my mom passed away last month, and we don't want to talk about that too much, or we'll start crying and that'll be the end of this podcast. So she had an interesting sense of humor. So she would teach him words the wrong way just for her own enjoyment, because she had such a great sense of humor. So that's how they met. She was betrothed. He was 17 years her senior. They eloped, scandal scandal. And there actually was sort of, ah, brokering of peace between one of the uncles. He was the broker of peace between my father and my grandfather, my mother's father. So after that all settled down, four Children happened and we ended up in Gainesville, Florida, where my dad taught at the university. Mom stayed home, bringing us back to where we were. She stayed home with us until Nadia, the youngest, was five years old and she started working at Santa Fe.
Vilma Fuentes: 4:42
Okay, so there's lots of questions I have based on what you've just said. So what did your father teach at U F?
Lila Guertin: 4:48
Dad was a clinical psychologist by education. And when he first came, he worked at the J. Phyllis Miller Health Center, which is now Shand's, and you have to be 150years old to remember that name. So that's one of you, right? So he worked there for a while, and, um, he said that it was ineffective. Free counseling seemed to not have an effect on people. He started teaching in the College of Education, and that's where he continued to work until he retired when he was 75 years old.
Vilma Fuentes: 5:21
Interesting. And now you mentioned kind of quickly and in passing that your maternal grandmother was dean at the University of Baghdad. So I think for a lot of Americans, when they think about Iraq or the Middle East, and certainly women there, they don't normally think about educated women. Um, share with us, please your perspective about what you heard from your mother what you saw about the Iraqi educational system and specifically how open or closed it was towards women.
Vilma Fuentes: 5:54
Thank you for asking that because we do have a different picture on this side. Uh, we do have a different picture of how women are treated in the Middle East. I can only speak for what I know, and that would be Baghdad and my mother's experiences. Ah, and my grandmother. I asked her about this. She said, "Lila," She said "in Baghdad women were treated equally to men. They had equal pay and they had an equal opportunity at education." My grandmother had a master's degree. She was born in 1920 she had a master's degree. I think it was a university in Lebanon, maybe Beirut. And that's where she was educated. And my grandfather, also highly educated, came over here to the United States to get his doctorate and he was the dean of science. So I come from a long line of educators. If there's an educator gene, I think you could probably track it through our family.
Vilma Fuentes: 6:53
That apple doesn't fall far from the tree. So your mom started working at Santa Fe during the early 1970s, and you said she was a biology teacher. Um, so tell us about some of what you saw or heard from her during all those years that you were growing up about her experiences at Santa Fe.
Lila Guertin: 7:16
My mom loved Santa Fe, I think Santa Fe was her savior. I believe my mom had ideas to be the next Madame Curie, and she was unable to fulfill that because she took on the role of mother and wife and homemaker. Um, she's probably rolling over in her grave right now, as I said, homemaker, because that's a June Cleaver reference, but that's what she wasn't. She was an excellent mom and homemaker and wife. Ah, so she didn't get to aspire to Madame Curie. So she took those aspirations and put them in the classroom and in the laboratory. Her standards were very, very high. I think if anybody ever worked with her, took a class with her, they knew that her expectations were way up there but she delivered the same. Um, she was a force to be reckoned with. She was nominated best professor, best dressed, best mommy in our eyes. So, um, Santa Fe offered her that opportunity to fulfill her excellence in her contribution to science and education.
Vilma Fuentes: 8:32
And, um, I think she did a really great job of also bringing the world into the classroom through a variety of different ways and even with partnerships with a few other professors on campus, don't you think? Um, I think, for instance, maybe she and another very well respected professor, Stuart McRae, an anthropology professor, often plotted to expose our students to the world.
Lila Guertin: 8:58
They did absolutely. And Stuart was instrumental in providing a gateway for my parents in terms of travel. Ah, in this part of the world, in the Western Hemisphere, um, my mother and father had traveled extensively over in the the east, but not so much here. And Stuart took them on a as a study abroad. Yeah, that's where Vilma and I met was in a study abroad event. But they went to Ecuador, and, um, my dad actually went back to Ecuador. I was asking him. My dad is now 99 still has a great memory and I said, "How many times did you go to Ecuador, Daddy?" And he said, "over 30." So I said, "Well, what other South American countries did you go to?" Um, he said, "Mexico." "How many times Daddy?" "Over 30" Peru five times, The Amazon times seven, Rio de Janeiro times three, Columbia one, Guatemala three and the list goes on. So if it hadn't been for Stewart opening that gateway, my dad would not have done all of that extensive travelling in Central and South America.
Vilma Fuentes: 10:14
And now, just to clarify Stuart McRae provided our students, and even our faculty, with study about opportunities before study abroad officially existed at the college. Meaning that when he taught cultural anthropology classes and another anthropology classes, he would take students to other parts of the world through his stories and would actively encourage them to travel on say, "Well, what do you doing? Spring break. What are you doing summer?" So people who had the good fortune of having him as a professor often described being transformed by him, and I know the same is true of your mother.
Lila Guertin: 10:54
Vilma Fuentes: 10:55
But your mother is only the first in a long line of Guertins to have had a strong association with Santa Fe and really have an impact with Santa Fe. Tell us your story.
Lila Guertin: 11:07
Well, um, all four of her children, including me, went to Santa Fe. I ended up with a couple of degrees from Santa Fe and keep somehow keep circling back around Santa Fe. So my own story very shortly a was that, uh, I went here for a couple of years and was pre-pharmacy. I was accepted to pharmacy school. My mother was thrilled, and I said, "I don't really want to go, but you could if you want to go back to school Mom." She's like nothing you. She had her degrees. So then I came back. Maybe there was a couple of year hiatus. I came back and study cardiovascular technology, um, and then started teaching in the program shortly after that. I went into private industry for about 15 years. I have now circle back to teaching in cardiovascular technology. So I'm on back home at Santa Fe. So that's my story. My siblings also attended here, and my associate of science degree has fed and educated both of my children. So it has served us quite well. Um, my sister ended up with business degree as well as a certificate in computers back in the day when they were as big as your house. I'm dating my sister, I'm sorry. She has worked in this industry for the last almost 30 years, and it's served her well My brother started at Santa Fe. He ended up with two degrees—one associate of arts and the other one cardiovascular technology and worked in the cath lab for 15 years and went on to finish his education at U F with a civil engineering degree. And my little sister, also at Santa Fe, finished her two years and went on to university and got her degree in material science engineering. Um, it didn't stop there. Um, my mom was as you could see, a very strong proponent for education and started a scholarship for our children. A college fund, if you will. And so our children went to Santa Fe. Out of the six grandchildren, the four who live in town all went to Santa Fe. All graduated from Santa Fe. And I believe three out of the four, if not four out of the four, were part of the dual enrollment program. So they graduated with a couple years of college.
Vilma Fuentes: 13:31
So that's dual enrollment. That was a while ago, I would guess. Yes?
Lila Guertin: 13:36
Yes. And my children also went on and finished their educations at the university, as did their cousins. And, uh, and incidentally, my daughter and my son both worked in the biology lab. I think you could make that connection. And when they worked there, uh, it was it was nice because they could see the other side of their grandmother. Not just the grandmother part of her, but what she did. You know, that was her other identity. Um, and that's where my daughter Elena met her future husband.
Vilma Fuentes: 14:08
Lila Guertin: 14:09
He was also educated at Santa Fe and went on to UF and finished there. So those two are saving our planet as wildlife biologists down in the Everglades.
Vilma Fuentes: 14:19
Exciting, exciting, And have they had an opportunity to travel and apply what they've learned that UF and here elsewhere?
Vilma Fuentes: 14:29
Well, because they're wildlife ecology education is Florida centric, not so much. Um, however, they both have the travel bug. Starting with Stuart taking my dad and my mom to Ecuador. My dad ended up taking each one of us children. He took each one of us on one, if not more, trips. Mine was too Guatemala, the jungles of Tikal to climb trees and collect orchids. We not grow up in a normal family.
Vilma Fuentes: 15:00
Who wants to be normal?
Lila Guertin: 15:06
My sister, my older sister, got to go to Cartagena and lay on the beaches. And I was the slob in the jungle. But it was okay. Mine is a better story. My little sister and little brother have gone on numerous trips of my dad as well as my mom. So, um, we definitely have the travel bug. And now I was just the other day, plotting for spring break coming up, I'm probably gonna go to Central Europe with her without anybody. I have got to travel. It is in our blood.
Vilma Fuentes: 15:35
So let me return to your mom for a second. So when I had the opportunity, I had the opportunity of meeting her during her last few years at Santa Fe. I I started here 2003. So when did she retired?
Lila Guertin: 15:51
Oh, my goodness. I was hoping you wouldn't ask that. I'm terrible with dates. Let's just say, uh, after that.
Vilma Fuentes: 15:59
How's this? I distinctly remember 2006 when the United States was starting their military intervention in Iraq and Saddam Hussein was deposed. And your mother will have a lot to say about that. On that was just me, a stranger in passing practically. What, if anything, did she tell you? What did she think? What did she feel when that really big international event happened?
Lila Guertin: 16:27
The one word that comes to mind is furious.
Vilma Fuentes: 16:29
Okay. Okay, that pretty much captures my impression too
Lila Guertin: 16:33
Right? My mom was not one to hide her feelings. She was quite expressive, very passionate, very intelligent. Beyond measure. Um, so she read a lot. You had to be very quiet during the 6:30 news, and read her Time magazine cover to cover. And then when the Internet came along, she started reading online as well. So my mom stayed quite educated about the goings on and was very disappointed because it was gonna be the destruction of her, her city, her culture, the place where her dad was buried in her home. So she was devastated, furious and devastated. I would say those two words.
Vilma Fuentes: 17:13
Did she ever recover?
Lila Guertin: 17:15
You know, I don't think so. Um, she actually ended up with the disease later in life, and we couldn't understand. Was it a disease that she had? Or was it depression? Because those two overlapped. Did the depression lead to the disease? So I don't know that she ever really recovered from that. But I will tell you, I'm glad she's not here to see some of the things that are going on.
Vilma Fuentes: 17:38
So your family must have been privvy to a lot of really beautiful stories about your mother's homeland. Stories that I think the rest of us in the U. S. Public didn't get to hear. What impressions have you heard being shared among your family about Iraq and how similar or different are they from whatever we've heard from the U. S. News in the last 20 years or so.
Lila Guertin: 18:06
I think if you look at the news and you look at the images that come through, you're seeing more of the everyday people in Iraq. Ah, whereas my parents of my mom and her family were...how shall we say they were educated? So there were...elite. I hate to use that kind of term, but so my, uh, my my knowledge and my impression is skewed. They grew up with, um not necessarily a lot of money, but they were certainly comfortable. Um, and I remember some very small things that she told me that were a real delight to her, like sleeping on the roof. And in this summertime, it was too hot. They had stone buildings that would, you know, you would have it cool off to some extent, but it was very hot, and they would take their blankets up there and sleep on the roof in the summertime, underneath the stars. Some some beautiful things. Another memory was, uh, when they would get on a boat and go. I think it's the oh my gosh. So geography—I went to a school that will remain unnamed here in Gainesville—but I did not learn geography, but one of the rivers there
Vilma Fuentes: 0:00
Lila Guertin: 19:26
I think so. I'm going with the T word. Um, and they would get on a boat and pack a picnic lunch, and they would go and take this boat across onto the islands and spend the day there frolicking in the water and in the sand, just much like we do it our beach. Beautiful. Maybe not something that an American with the slant that we get would kind of envision.
Vilma Fuentes: 19:52
Where did you or any of your siblings or nieces? Nephews, kids that have the opportunity to travel to Iraq?
Lila Guertin: 19:59
We did. My dad was a Fulbright scholar in 1966 And so, on our way to Egypt, we went to Baghdad to stay with her family with her mom and her dad. Ah, and we were exposed to cholera. That was kind of exciting. Uh, never been mass immunized or seen such a scene in my life. But we were all in the town square, and there were people who were just being immunized with ease. Air guns. I you know, it was sort of an air injection, so this is sort of way of mass inoculation without infection transmission, So Ah, kind of interesting, but yeah, we went to Baghdad, but I was kind of young, and we stayed in the house. Ah, lot. I remember that. You know his Children. We wanted to be outside. We're Floridians, like, where's the bamboo and where's the backyard? But I remember all the Arabic relatives coming, and for some reason, they like to pinch your cheeks.
Vilma Fuentes: 20:53
I have no idea why you were lucky if it was a single pinch.
Lila Guertin: 20:56
But sometimes it was both cheeks, you know, And they were like, Oh, Habibti, and, you know when they would talk to you in Arabic. And at this point, I didn't understand a lot of the Arabic. Not that I do now, but habibti and team you my heart. You are my heart. Um and they were just so sweet. It was a wonderful experience for us.
Vilma Fuentes: 21:14
But did you learn? Obviously you learned some Arabic. At least a few words.
Lila Guertin: 21:17
Yes. Yes, Julia, which means a little. I use that one a lot. Okay, So we did learn a little bit, but mostly my parents spoke Arabic when they didn't want us to know what they were saying. Yeah, it was like code.
Vilma Fuentes: 21:29
So your father was fluent in Arabic.
Lila Guertin: 21:31
He spoke Arabic, German, Spanish, English. That man was amazing, is amazing.
Vilma Fuentes: 21:35
And your mother, um, Arabic and English, Uh, only two languages. Well, gee, that's still a very impressive Certainly. Yes. Not your typical family. Yes. Um, So how do you bring these experiences to the classroom? Or if not the classroom to Santa Fe? Now, that year that you've had the opportunity to experience an iffy as a student and now to come back as a professor, is there an opportunity for you to expose our students to the world?
Lila Guertin: 22:11
I ah, couple of years ago, where you and I met Vilma and I met in AA study abroad to Cartagena. This was June. It will come back, coming up on three years. I believe in
Vilma Fuentes: 22:25
I believe in March 2008. March 2008. I'm sorry. 18.
Lila Guertin: 22:33
Yes, of course. 18 march. So we're coming up by two years. We're coming up on two years, so I had I was lucky enough to, um, join Vilma and Mary Jane Frederick with is the head of i t of the I T programs. And they had already established a relationship of study abroad program with the Senna Institute in Cartagena. So there IT students met our IT students, and I got to observe this this this beautiful marriage, it was it was amazing. Um, and Mike, the reason that I went as I was trying to start a study abroad program for our students in health related. So my vision, Univision's air great. And then there's reality, and they don't often meet. But my vision was that a few of my students would go over there and train some of their students how to do echocardiograms, which is ultrasound of the heart. And, um So when I went over there, I was, ah, watching and meeting thes different instructors and students in their health institute said very much like Santa Fe at I T and health related and all sorts of other programs, um, come to find out echocardiography is it Is it different? It's a difficult task that has performed only by the physicians over there so that marriage wasn't gonna work. Having my 18 months graduates teach their eight year or 10 or 12 year educated physicians had to do echocardiograms. That just was just not gonna match very well. So unfortunately, my opportunity did not work out, but it was quite eye opening for me. I I was blessed to be a part of these beautiful people on what they shared with me.
Vilma Fuentes: 24:19
I actually, while we were in Colombia, I remember you being very am impacted by the work you were seeing these individuals do in terms of community health care, work. Um, can you tell us about that?
Lila Guertin: 24:34
Absolutely. I was so moved. The, um, one of the one of the roles. One of the programs they had was to treat it was to teach ah students to become, uh, sort of ah, community or a village social worker. Are you? Excuse me? A village health care worker. Ah, So one person would be designated as that health care worker. And if there were a sick baby in the village, they could come to the house 24 hours a day, seven days a week and bring this baby in, um, and this health care worker within, but would weigh this baby measure this baby, Show the mom how to mix the what we call Pedialyte, electrolytes and water in a sanitary fashion. And have that mother bring that baby back within two hours. If that baby started to lose, weight was not holding food down was starting become dehydrated. They were given a ah golden ticket to the hospital said that the baby was already triaged and they could go straight to the hospital without having to go through triage. So, in other words, waiting in the emergency room for someone to say, Hey, you're sick enough to be admitted. So I said, Well, you know, how much does this job pay? And they said nothing. I hated to be so money focused, but that was probably the biggest difference that I saw between their health, health care, culture and ours is that it's not driven by money. It is driven by making is driven by
Vilma Fuentes: 25:58
saving lives, saving lives.
Lila Guertin: 26:00
And it was it was it was amazing to me. I said, Well, then how do you support yourself? And typically it was somebody else in the like, Ah ah husband or a wife who would support them or they stayed home and they sold minutes on cell phones or they did eBay. But they worked so that they could then work for their village.
Vilma Fuentes: 26:22
So when we were in Colombia on our way there on our way back and and while they were students, I observed how you exposed our Santa Fe students to other parts of the world. And you did it in really subtle ways, like we would sit down to eat and you would say, a blessing in Arabic or you would share a story from your parents or growing up. Um, I suspect that in really subtle ways, you still do that with your students and cardiovascular technology. Maybe not when you're teaching them, like now look the Cordy or whatever it is, E. But, um, I I think I know I've seen you do it in person in very subtle and unique ways. You're exposing students to other cultures of the languages, other ways of thinking. Other foods and their little light bulbs have just lit up. So taking a kid from interlocking and exposing them to Middle Eastern food or telling them a word in Arabic just kind of causes them to being shocked to be quite honestly, right up. Like what? What are you doing? And then it opens the door to an opportunity for a conversation. And I would imagine that, especially training students to work in a health care setting. This is incredibly valuable so that they understand that some of their patients might be from other cultures and might speak other languages. And they need to know how to interact in that way.
Lila Guertin: 27:45
Absolutely. Yeah, I think one of the one of the Middle Eastern that one of the differences between, say, a Middle Eastern woman and an American woman, um, is a Middle Eastern woman is going to be very modest. A Middle Eastern woman may not actually come to the hospital without a male escort, which would be a member in her family. So when we do an echocardiogram, a woman has to remove her clothes from the waist up. Ah, including the breezier. They would wear a gown so they would be covered. However, this is, you know, where a woman would feel quite vulnerable. And if she were modest, this would be, you know, pretty much pushing the envelope for her. So I explained to them, um, I use I use scenarios in a discussion format. You have a woman who comes in and she is from the Middle East, and you are a male technologist, and you give her the instructions to remove the clothing and put the gown on. Ah, and she just looks at you. What do you do next? And then they have to figure out it may be a language barrier. It may be a cultural barrier. Maybe it's time that you go and you get a female technologist to do this or you get a family member. But I try to expose them to that. There are differences, and we need to ferret out what those differences are. Respect them, honor them and treat them accordingly.
Vilma Fuentes: 29:05
Absolutely. Um, it speaks to the critical importance of teaching our students intercultural communication. Um Well, thank you, Leela. Thank you. And your family for, um, having made such enormous contributions to Santa Fe College and helping expose our students to the world.
Lila Guertin: 29:26
And thank you, Vilma, for having me