Summer study abroad program offers lessons in far more than just language
By Kate Chester, Portland Community College
Oaxaca City, Mexico — “Good morning, class. My name is Ita. Welcome to Spanish A-2. Over the next two weeks we will learn the present and past tenses, along with commands and how to use direct and indirect pronouns.”
And so began my Spanish class taught by Itandehui Concepción González Jiménez, a teacher at Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, an international language school in southern Mexico.
I was one of a dozen (lucky) faculty and staff from Portland Community College tapped to participate in a two-week Spanish immersion program, a summer term intercultural exchange the college launched in 2007. Applicants submit proposals to PCC’s selection committee outlining how two weeks of study at ICO will assist them in their work at the college. Upon their return to Portland, participants apply their Oaxaca experience in college-wide activities such as the annual International Week celebration in November.
“The number of our international and immigrant students is growing, which means the college is serving an increasingly diverse population,” said Jane Walster, assistant director of PCC’s Office of International Education. “A program like this helps to equip our staff and faculty with understanding and openness when working with new and different populations.”
For two weeks, PCC participants took language classes — taught completely in Spanish, with no English allowed — from 9 a.m. to noon, followed by hour-long conversation classes with their teachers and classmates. Afternoons featured two-hour culture classes on native Oaxacan art forms, as well as daily “intercambio exchanges” that enabled students to converse with locals interested in improving their English. PCC’s participants also attended lectures designed by ICO on Oaxaca’s cultural diversity and history and Mexico’s educational system.
“I can say that I experienced the emotions of being a student in a foreign culture … the triumphs of understanding a conversation and the frustrations of misunderstanding a verb usage,” said Cortney Nylen, who serves as both the education coordinator of PCC’s Workforce Development Programs and as a part-time English for Speakers of Other Languages instructor. “I work with ESL students on a daily basis at the college, and through this experience I can more deeply empathize with ESL students at PCC.”
Nylen and countless other students from around the world have benefitted from the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca since it opened its doors in 1984. Lucero Topete, who launched the school with her late husband, continues to run the institute with her two sons, along with three assistant directors.
“My husband and I wanted to show the cultural richness of Mexico,” Topete said, “especially southern Mexico, with its 2,000 language dialects, 17 Indian indigenous groups, the pyramids, the mountains, the trees, the fruits … the real Mexico, with its many riches.”
The school was once the home of Topete’s maternal grandparents, who willed it to her mother. Topete eventually inherited the house, and when she married a native from Oaxaca she returned to her roots, moving to Oaxaca City from Mexico City in 1976 to take a position as a historian while her husband taught Spanish classes at the house. Before long she joined him, broadening the kinds of courses offered to include those on Oaxacan culture and history, archeology, indigenous populations and their languages, and more.
Because of its history, ICO is unlike other school properties. It boasts gardens filled with vibrant, colorful flowers, gently curving fruit trees, graceful fountains, tiled terraces, and shaded verandas — much like a home might offer.
This touches on another unique aspect of the program. Participants are given the option of staying with local families or residing in dormitory-like “posadas” over their two weeks in Oaxaca City. Most choose home stays, to add to the language immersion experience. Students ate breakfast with their host families, as well as several “comidas” throughout their stay. Conversation flowed, with Spanish and English dictionaries being leafed through over meals as students and hosts strove to find the “right” words to use.
The weekend bridging the two-week stay gave PCC participants the chance to visit two nearby towns: Teotitlán del Valle, a pueblo about an hour away known for its Zapotec history and fine woven goods, and Monte Albán, a large pre-Columbian archaeological site to the west of Oaxaca City. Founded in approximately 500 BCE, Monte Albán was one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica and served as the base of the Zapotec socio-political and economic power for nearly 1,000 years.
Having returned from Oaxaca, participants have already begun planning how they will incorporate their experience into their work at PCC. For example, Nylen intends to develop workshops to assist the college’s Workforce Development staff to better understand the needs of its Mexican clients and students, specifically, a workshop to inform GED staff about the Mexican education system.
In addition to individual projects like Nylen’s, several participants have agreed to be panelists in sessions on multiple PCC campuses as part of International Week beginning Nov. 13. Logistics planning for these began in August.
That’s the reaction Topete seeks for those who have studied at ICO.
“My hope is that our students gain a bicultural understanding,” Topete said. “A person can easily learn Spanish, but learning a language can be impersonal. When you put in people, food, gardens, fruit, trees — life — the learning of Spanish becomes easier because you’re happy, and you want to communicate that happiness and your experience to your loved ones.”
Kate Chester is the community relations manager at PCC Sylvania. She plans to apply her Oaxaca experience in her work with the college’s Internationalization Initiative; to develop new community partnerships between the college and organizations dedicated to Portland’s Spanish-speaking population; to serve as a conversation partner with Spanish-speaking students; and to continue her outreach to Spanish-language media in Portland.
Este artículo también está disponible en / This post is also available in: Spanish
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