“Spanish in the Community” first Gen Ed class offered in language other than English



“Spanish in the Community,” a 200-level course begun in 2005, will this fall become the first General Education (“Gen ED”) course the U of I will offer in a language other than English.

In the fall of 2018, Associate Dean Karen Ritter contacted Spanish and Portuguese department professor and head Mariselle Meléndez about a new gen ed course for U.S. Minorities. She asked about courses that already existed in the Spanish and Portuguese curriculum. Mariselle identified 232, “Spanish in the Community.”

Ann Abbott, current associate professor and director of undergraduate studies for Spanish and Portuguese, started the course in 2005 with the idea of focusing on language and content, but also to involve students in the local community. Students were required to volunteer a total of 28 hours in the community during the semester.

The first community partner was the Refugee Center of Urbana. Twelve students enrolled in that first class. By the second semester of the course a second community partner jumped on board, and by the third, ten partners took part.

Today the course regularly fills at its maximum of 20 students. For its gen ed version, the maximum remains at 20, as placing more than 20 students with community organizations would be a tremendous challenge, but two sections will be offered in the fall. The course will be taught in Spanish, and students will be expected to volunteer 28 semester hours in the community. However, for the gen ed version of the course, some of the available readings will be in English, and, as Abbott points out, perfect Spanish grammar or speech won’t be expected by instructors.

This approach was necessary to ensure that the course would be accepted as a gen ed class. Abbott said that one goal is to allow students to personalize the course—for example, which language or languages will they choose to read in, while recognizing the value of students coming together in the class to share the knowledge they glean from either English or Spanish sources. As Abbott also notes, the vast majority of U.S. students have already taken as many as four years of Spanish in high school. But that also underscores another fact she makes clear, namely, that Spanish is a “language of the United States.”

Statistics support that assertion. Illinois is in the top 10 states with the largest Hispanic population, reaching 17.2% of the state population. The majority of them are located in Chicago. “In fact, our university is trying to recruit heavily within this population,” notes Meléndez. “The demographics of our state and the University’s commitment to underrepresented minorities support the idea of accepting courses in Spanish that address crucial issues such as bilingualism, migration and the role of Spanish in our communities.”

That idea is one that Champaign-Urbana organizations have bought into. The C-U Refugee Center, whose state mission is to “provide services essential to refugee and immigrant resettlement in East-Central Illinois and to aid in the exchange and preservation of their respective cultures,” continues to be a key partner among community organizations. Students who volunteer there typically work two hours a week. For example, they answer the door or the phone; they play with children of parents who are meeting with counselors; they explain bills that clients receive; or they accompany immigrants to court or to doctor appointments.

Other participating community organizations include SOAR (Student Opportunities for After-School Resources), Champaign-Urbana schools, Crisis Nursery, Latino Boy Scouts, the Francis Nelson Health Clinic, and the Parkland College Dental Clinic. SOAR is an after-school tutoring program that provides literacy support and homework help to Latina/o emergent bilingual/biliterate students in grades 2-5 by pairing them one-on-one with students from the U. of I.

Abbott said she is happy that the course “fits so well because we’re not just talking about Latino immigrants; the students are helping them and also realize the diversity among them, including, for example, indigenous people from Guatemala.

“I think it’s a really rich way for students to learn about U.S. minorities,” she adds.

Abbott said a goal is to get organizations to understand how they can use students, for instance, using Spanish on their websites, or how to use volunteers beyond simply answering phones or doing paperwork. “We help them imagine how they can use our students’ Spanish, knowledge and skills,” she said. 

Overall, Abbott takes pride in the effort to match students with community involvement, and is thrilled to see the course become part of the Gen Ed curriculum.