Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey

New Language Program Connects Spanish Learners with Local Hispanic Community

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New Language Program

Institute students Allison Newman and Stephanie Nelson with two women from Mujeres en Accion in Soledad.

October 14, 2015

After taking a Spanish class with Professor Gabriel Guillén in her first semester, joint International Education Management and Public Administration degree student April Danyluk MAIEM/MPA ’16 was eager to keep practicing the language by connecting with native speakers in the area over winter break. She discussed this with Guillén, who embraced the idea and immediately started exploring opportunities for students to connect with the large Hispanic community in Monterey County. Over the summer they connected with the Action Council in Monterey County and this fall semester he and April organized a pilot program in partnership with Mujeres in Acción, a women’s collective action group in Soledad led by Maria Elena Manzo.

The pilot program connects Institute students with a group of Soledad women who would like to improve their English skills. Every month, Guillén and fourteen students travel to Soledad to engage with the women in a two-hour tandem learning session. They talk about a chosen topic for five minutes in Spanish, then five minutes in English and so it goes on, allowing both groups to practice their second language. “There was a lot of laughter and some crying too,” Guillén says of the first session during which the participants were encouraged to share their life stories with one another. He organizes several activities and discussion prompts for each session.

“The women from the group in Soledad come from the same area in Mexico and would like to improve their English to get better jobs,” Guillén explains, “but in their community, they have few opportunities to practice.” This goal pairs wonderfully with the desire of Institute students to practice their Spanish and to “get into” the Hispanic community that is such a large part of Monterey County’s population, but can often seem far removed from daily life in downtown Monterey. “It is great to have the chance to break through the ‘lettuce curtain’ that separates the Salinas Valley and the Monterey coastal communities,” says April. With the tandem learning, both groups have something to offer the other. “Nothing beats making those human connections!”

This semester students are participating in the program without getting any academic credit, but Professor Guillén would love to turn this into a course one day and is exploring ways to make that happen. He and April are also working on proposals to connect Spanish courses with service learning in the local community. It’s in many ways a typical Middlebury Institute story: an enthusiastic student and a supportive faculty member working together to translate an innovative idea from the classroom into a real-world action plan, and then implementing it.

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