Students Learned Spanish and Lent a Hand to Local Hispanic Community in January Term Course

January 18, 2008
January 18, 2008 — Students in a conversational Spanish class did more than talk during this year's January term; they helped people in the local Hispanic community.

Patricia E. Reagan, who taught "Culture and Conversation Special Topic: Hispanics/Latinos in the United States," led her students out from the classroom and into the local Spanish-speaking community to hone their language skills while promoting literacy and services.

"I wanted to mix community service with course work, because real contact with real Spanish speakers brings the language and material alive," said Reagan, a graduate student in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.

The students participated in three projects — enumerating government-financed services available to Spanish speakers, promoting the Girl Scouts and sponsoring a literacy event in which the University students read Spanish text to Hispanic youth.

Alexandra K. Hootnick, a fourth-year psychology major with a Spanish minor, took the class to get a more in-depth view of the local Hispanic community.

"I think if you are going to learn a language, you need to get out there and get your hands in it," said Hootnick. "Learning the culture is as important as learning the language."

Claire M. Kugler, a fourth-year history and Latin America Studies major, took the course because she wanted to continue speaking Spanish, but the topics drew her in.

"I was surprised at the large quantity of illegals in the country and how critical they are to the economy," she said. 

The class attended a Hispanic Mass celebrated at the Roman Catholic Church of the Incarnation and visited a mostly Hispanic trailer park to promote the literacy project.

Hootnick was impressed with how the Mass acted as both a religious service and a social get-together.

"I had never seen a Mass with guitars," said Hootnick, who is Jewish. "But it added a level of comfort for the people."

In the trailer park, students distributed fliers for the literacy project.

"Some of the Hispanics were excited to have a Spanish reading event," said Hootnick, who also got reactions from several non-Hispanics in the park. "Some people were against having an event in Spanish, but others were open to it."

Kugler, who has done some tutoring in the trailer park, said the residents seem receptive to U.Va. students trying to help them.

Students ”were surprised [at] how many Spanish speakers there are living" here, Reagan said.

The class was not all community interaction. The students read a number of works, including "Shadowed Lives," by Leo Chavez, "The House on Mango Street," by Sandra Cisneros, and chapters from Gloria Anzaldúa's "Borderlands" and Roberto Suro's "Strangers Among Us: How Latino Immigration Is Transforming America." They heard guest lectures on law, anthropology and sociology as it applies to the Hispanic migration. They saw eight movies — both documentaries and fiction — in eight days, including "Farmingville," "The Tragedy of Marcario" and "A Day Without A Mexican."

"There is a large Spanish-speaking population in this country and wherever [these students] end up, I want them to be able to make connections so that they can continue to use Spanish to benefit Spanish speakers here in the United States," Reagan said.

This year the class roster was entirely female, which Reagan said allowed them to explore some areas that would have been more difficult with male classmates.

"They could talk about issues of domestic violence and the roles of men and women, things that are harder to manage when the class is mixed," she said. "The girls got to know each other very well."

The class and community contact helped Hootnick, who will teach a bilingual class in California for Teach for America. Hootnick, who has already written a paper on integrating Hispanics into the United States, praised Reagan for putting the class together.

"She is so interested and so passionate. It makes her an exceptional teacher," Hootnick said.