Joy Renjilian-Burgy’s Work in Spanish Language and Culture Earns Her a Medal from the King of Spain


WELLESLEY, Mass. — Joy Renjilian-Burgy, associate professor of Spanish at Wellesley, has earned multiple awards and honors over her teaching career, but perhaps few as indicative of her devotion to Spanish language and literature as the medal she received on April 10 from King Felipe VI of Spain.

La Orden de la Cruz de Isabel la Católica (Order of the Cross of Isabel the Catholic) is one of the highest civil honors awarded by the Spanish government to Spaniards, as well as foreign-born citizens who have distinguished themselves in various professions fostering the study of the diverse languages and cultures of Hispanic nations.

Renjilian-Burgy has taught at Wellesley for 38 years and has served in key leadership roles in regional, national, and international organizations.

Renjilian-Burgy‘s path to high honor in Spain began in the industrial city of Holyoke, Mass., in the Connecticut River Valley. Her mother, who came to the United States after the Armenian Genocide, worked in a paper factory, while her father, also Armenian, worked in a silk mill. “We were a family of modest economic means,” said, Renjilian-Burgy who was one of four daughters. “We were a traditional family, old-fashioned in many ways but joyous. My parents were immigrants. Although they had no formal schooling, they were the most intelligent people I knew, and instilled in us life-long values.”

Renjilian-Burgy had many jobs, including making factory notebooks like the ones she would later use in college. She studied hard and took time to listen to her parents speak in their native language, as well as Arabic. She became fond of the rhythms and tone of Arabic. “I loved the sound,” she said.

Later, she recognized the same sounds when she listened to people speaking Spanish, which led her to major in Spanish at Mount Holyoke College. “I loved the Arabic influence and the vocabulary,” she said.

In college, she devoured Don Quixote and other books in which adventurous, chivalrous heroes and heroines fought for justice. “My classmates and I immersed ourselves in chivalric adventures and experienced the heights and depths of the human condition while embracing the rich, diverse Spanish language,” she said. “I was mesmerized because I had found my life’s passion.”

After graduating from Mount Holyoke, Renjilian-Burgy earned a master’s degree from Harvard University and joined the Spanish Department at Wellesley in 1979. “I was the first generation in my family to finish college, and I felt a connection with Wellesley because of the value placed on educating women,” she said.

During her career, Renjilian-Burgy has won numerous prizes and awards, including induction into Holyoke High School’s Hall of Fame and being named Massachusetts Spanish Teacher of the Year in 1981 by the Spanish Heritage Society. At Wellesley, she won the Pinanski Prize for Excellence in Teaching in 1983.

She has chaired the Spanish department three times and has held leadership positions in organizations such as the Northeast Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and the United Nations Fund for Women.

Looking back over her 50-year career, Renjilian-Burgy said, “I get fulfillment from teaching new ideas and receiving responsive inquiry. I strive to build student self-expression and confidence.”

“Her devotion to students is legendary, having hosted many of them in her own house during summers and after graduation,” said her colleague Carlos Ramos, professor of Spanish. “She also pays it forward as a dedicated board member of the Wellesley Student Aid Society.”

“She is also a beloved presence in our athletic facilities, where she attends numerous games to encourage our student-athletes. Her students love her, and very quickly establish long-lasting bonds with her.”