Teresa (Tere) Palma Pica, a professor at the Graduate School of Education and one of the world's leading experts in the field of second language acquisition (SLA), died November 14, 2011, after an illness of many months; she was 66.
Dr. Pica's influence on the theory and practice of second language acquisition would be hard to overstate. In the 1980s, when most approaches to SLA were cognitive and psychological, she championed the idea that students learn best when they use their second language in meaningful, task-based, face-to-face interactions - an idea that is now at the center of SLA teaching and research.
Although she was excited by theory, Dr. Pica never lost sight of the practical applications of her work. Much of her research focused on how best to use task-based interaction in the second-language classroom, and she led workshops for teachers in Philadelphia and around the world.
But Dr. Pica is perhaps best remembered as a tireless teacher and caring mentor to thousands of master's degree students and dozens of doctoral candidates - many of whom have gone on to become leaders in the field themselves.
Her devotion to the people she mentored was legendary, and her office was decorated with photographs of former students. "They were her children, in a sense," said Dr. Jiyoon Lee, a former student who was working closely with Dr. Pica at the time of her death. "She was proud of all of us."
Over and over, her students recalled Dr. Pica's genuine interest in their lives and extraordinary powers of memory; when meeting former students whom she hadn't seen for years, she would immediately inquire about their spouses and children by name. "I was always awed at how she was able to connect with each and every one of us on a really personal level," said Dr. Anne Pomerantz, who now teaches at Penn GSE.
Dr. Pica held her students to high standards and pushed them to excel. But she pushed herself as well; always generous with her time, and seemingly tireless, she quickly responded to students' emails at any hour of the day or night, and she would return thoughtful and incisive feedback on long pieces such as dissertation chapters within a few hours of receiving them.
After Dr. Pica was struck by a car and severely injured while walking in West Philadelphia some years ago, an accident that left her temporarily unable to write, she read her students' papers in her hospital bed and recorded her responses to them. Dr. Pica apparently spent her last hours giving feedback on her students' work. Dr. Pica was a constant and enthusiastic presence at academic conferences, where she amused her colleagues with her "wicked sense of humor," said Dr. Larry Selinker, another pioneer of the SLA field and director/owner of Research Production Associates. She was a frequent guest lecturer at universities in the US and abroad; a member of the editorial boards of leading journals in her field; and the winner of numerous academic honors and awards.
Dr. Pica was born and raised in Connecticut. She graduated in 1967 from the College of New Rochelle with a bachelor's degree in English and speech communications; in 1969, she received a master's degree in speech pathology and audiology from Teachers College, Columbia University. She then began became a speech therapist in the Easton-Redding, CT, school system.
Her parents were second language learners: her father was an Italian immigrant, and her mother, born into an Italian-American family in New Jersey, was sent to live with relatives in Italy as a small child and returned to the US at age 12.
Dr. Pica earned her PhD in educational linguistics from Penn GSE in 1982 and came to work as an assistant professor at the school in 1983, replacing her adviser, Dr. Michael Long, who had taken a job elsewhere. In the course of her career, she held many positions at GSE; at the time of her death, in addition to her professorship, Dr. Pica was director of GSE's TESOL program and co-director of the Penn Lauder CIBER Summer Institute. In 1987 she won a Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching and in 2002 she won the GSE Teaching Award.
Among Dr. Pica's many friends at Penn GSE was Dr. Larry Sipe, who had a parallel career as an Episcopal clergyman. In her will, said her sister, Anna Marie Goldberg, Dr. Pica asked that Dr. Sipe officiate at her funeral. But Dr. Sipe died suddenly on March 15, the same day that Dr. Pica fell ill.
Dr. Pica is survived by her sister and brother-in-law, Anna Marie and Ron Goldberg; a niece, Stacie Boering, and her husband, Ron; and two great-nieces, Alexandria Boering and Olivia Greco. Her husband, Robert Hamilton, died in 2008.
A memorial will be held at the University in spring 2012.