Students find new ways to use language skills

Cornell College and Coe College set aside the long-time, friendly rivalry to work together for a brand new 10-day summer program.

They called it the Language-in-Community Summer Seminar, and a total of 13 Cornell and Coe students participated in the experience Aug. 6–16. The program was designed to help French and Spanish students apply their language skills directly in the community and to better prepare them for their professional lives.

This program was funded with a portion of a $50,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which the institutions jointly received to support the development of a collaborative foreign language partnership.

“For the seminar, our language department faculty came together and focused on ways we could get our students engaged in the community and use their language skills to the benefit not only of themselves but really to the benefit of others,” said Cornell College Professor of French Devan Baty. “The focus of this seminar is to prepare our students to work with our most vulnerable populations in our local community–immigrants and refugees.”

The group worked with the Catherine McAuley Center’s Refugee Resettlement Program in Cedar Rapids. Students helped new refugees search for jobs, learn English, and navigate the city bus system.

“One of the goals is–How do we articulate what students can do with language? I think this is giving them a really good picture of at least one area where they can immediately apply their language skills and make a huge difference in the community,” said Coe College Associate Professor of French Joyce Janca-Aji.

Part of the seminar also included translating documents and paperwork for Iowa families, including back-to-school supply lists.

“When people come into this country, if they have children–they need to go to school by law,” said Jessica Uriostegui ’20. “If they are given a list of these 30 items, they are going to be like, ‘What?’ Having those lists translated makes them feel more welcome and confident that they are going to send their children to school with the right things and not be the outcasts.”

Uriostegui plans to use her Spanish major in the classroom as a secondary education teacher when she graduates from Cornell.

“I hope to become a teacher in low poverty schools because I know how it feels when you don’t have a support system of ‘oh, you should go to college’ or ‘you should go study something.’ I want to help those in need,” Uriostegui said.

Robert Petrie ’21 also participated in the summer seminar. While he doesn’t know what he wants to do after graduation just yet, he said this seminar prompted him to think about the future.

“I have already seen a lot of different jobs and career paths that I didn’t know about. This has definitely opened up a lot of options for me to consider,” Petrie said. “I know I want to help people, and I’m considering working for NGOs (non-governmental organizations) but it’s been nice to get exposure to the different jobs people can have in the field.”

After the 10 days were over, the students had one big assignment.

“Our expectation is that students will not stop at the end of the 10 days. They will take these experiences, these relationships, and new perspectives into the community,” Baty said. “Each student will come up with their own individual project proposal.”

Professors say they hope the seminar experience and individual projects will train students to think differently about language and culture in a way that they find new connections.

“We want students to have a relationship with language and cultures that go well beyond Coe and Cornell–that really change their lives,” Janca-Aji said.

Students were selected for the program and received a stipend, free housing at Coe, and a certificate recognizing their work.