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Reunion Island

Written by Diana Mazzella
PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDERIC CIROU

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Weena Gaulin may be the only Mountaineer from Reunion Island. Where is that? She'll tell you. Reunion is an island of about 850,000 people and 1/24th the size of West Virginia in the Indian Ocean. In the 1600s it was settled by the French, and today the island that is just east of Madagascar is still a part of France. People there speak French, are under the French government and use the Euro. But Reunion’s people have come from all over the world.

Gaulin’s mother is from France. Her maternal grandfather was from England. Her father is of Indian and African descent.

“So you put all that together, you shake it up, and there I am!” she said with a laugh.

Weena Gaulin
Weena Gaulin/Photo Provided

Hailing from the city of Saint-Andre, she wanted to be a teacher, so she figured she would go abroad to improve her English and then return to teach at the college level. But that’s not what happened.

As a Catholic, Gaulin, MA ’06, TESOL, EdD ’06, Curriculum and Instruction, says she believes that God wanted her to take the path less traveled and see the world. Along the way, she had teachers and professors who saw her potential and encouraged her to see more of the world. She studied in Oxford, England; Australia; and South Carolina. And at the end of her first master’s degree from Reunion Island University, she had this chance to go to the U.S. again.

She put in an application to an exchange program listing her qualifications to teach French. An answer came back. West Virginia University wanted her as a graduate teaching assistant. She didn’t know anything about West Virginia or the University, but in 2000 she traveled sight unseen more than 9,000 miles by plane and arrived in Morgantown, tired from the journey but curious.

If you ask Gaulin about the place she’s lived with the most people from different places, she’ll answer “Morgantown.”

While people in her home of Reunion originated from many places, they still belonged to the same island culture.

“It’s a small place,” she said of Reunion. “Then I came to Morgantown, even a smaller place, but then it was a bigger window into the world.”

Working in the Intensive English program, she met students from all over the world: Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mongolia, Germany, China, Brazil, Russia, Ecuador. She got to know the differences in their dialects and cultures. And it wasn’t only the international students that she got to know. There were the Americans with backgrounds unlike her own: Italian, German, Irish.

And while she spent most of her time focused on studies and work, she made a strong faith connection with the community at St. John University Parish. She called them her “lifeblood.” When life got stressful with studying, there was always pizza and a listening ear of someone who was going through the same thing in their studies.

She became connected to the University in a way that international students before and after her often describe.

“You know in the mountains, there’s a sense of safety,” she said. “I remember if I’d be away for a conference I’d be out of state and I’d be driving through. Whenever I saw the sign ‘Welcome to West Virginia,’ I’d be breaking into song: ‘Country roads take me home…’  just filled with joy that this is home.”

Gaulin was mentored by College of Education and Human Services professors Ardeth Deay and Patricia Obenauf, who recently passed away.

“When I went through my doctoral degree, I had tremendous professors,” Gaulin said. “They recognized talent, and they allowed it to bloom.”

And their belief paid off. Gaulin is now the chair of the education department at Ave Maria University on the west coast of Florida, with previous stints working at colleges in Philadelphia and Virginia as a faculty member and administrator.

She’s something of an ambassador for Reunion Island and WVU. She hasn’t met anyone else from Reunion after almost two decades in the U.S., though she once did meet someone from its island neighbor Mauritius. In southwest Florida, she hasn’t yet met a Mountaineer. At her university’s recent convocation in her first month on the job, she wore her doctoral robes that declare she graduated from WVU.

“They know I’m very strong about my sense of identity as a Mountaineer, which gives me a sense of resilience,” she said. “It was earned. It was hard work. I’m proud of my gold and blue colors.”

Gaulin hasn’t been back to WVU recently, but she eagerly receives news about the goings-on in Morgantown. If you ask her what being a Mountaineer means to her, she says the question makes her want to cry.

“It means everything,” she said. “It’s my new identity here in America. Put that down. It is who I am.”