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Sunday, March 20, 2011

How do Spanish Community Service Learning Students Define Success?

by Ann Abbott

If you read through the "Student Reflections" on this blog, you'll find that students define a successful Spanish community service learning (CSL) experience in many ways.  
  • They use and improve their Spanish.
  • They feel they "connected" somehow with a member of the local Latino community.
  • They feel that they were able to help someone in the community resolve a problem.
  • They gain new insights into immigration policies and immigrants' lived realities.
  • They feel that their work in the community connects to their career goals.
But this week in class, we turned the tables: I asked students what they thought success looked like in general and for immigrants in particular.

First we did the actividades concluyentes at the end of Unidad 3 in Comunidades. Then we viewed the video interviews with Ruth Montenegro, a successful businesswoman originally from El Salvador.  (You can see those videos at the Comunidades Companion Website.)

Finally, we did the activity about defining success (pp. 94-95).  I wrote items that invited discussion, thought and questioning. At least I thought they did. I was surprised to find that the majority of my students--who are all smart, sensitive and caring people--defined success in almost exclusively economic terms. There were a few other surprises, too.

  • Item #1 asks if this is "éxito" or not: "Tener una casa propia, un auto que no tenga más de cinco años y poder tomar vacaciones en la playa dos veces al año." From my observations, this item generated no discussion or questioning among the student groups. The answer was simply, "Sí." First of all, if that is the definition of success, not many people in this country will ever be successful. And if that's what people aspire to, that's why too many people are maxed out on credit with their mortgages, car payments and credit cards. 
  • Item #3 describes, "Una madre que lleva una vida de sacrificios para que sus hijos puedan estudiar en una escuela de renombre y vestirse de moda." Although this item did generate more discussion in a few groups, it also revealed that a lot of people have very gendered notions of success. In short, most students seemed to feel that, yes, that was an example of success. That disappointed me, of course, because again, it is all about external, material, "branded" signs of success, and all on the back of the self-sacrificing mother.
  • Item #7 is about, "Alguien que se hace millonario, pisoteando a los demás." To begin with, most students did not know the word "pisotear," so I think the answer I expected from them probably came through in my explanation of "stepping on others." Still, some students did feel like that was success.
  • Item #8 portrays, "Una persona que trabaja para pasar un referéndum que beneficiaría a las escuelas, pero el referéndum no pasa." I was surprised that at least some students said that, yes, this was success because the person had worked hard.
In the future, I will develop this activity further. As it is right now, it is a very good starting point for a broader discussion about success. Where do our ideas about success come from? What are the realities versus the myths of success? What would ethical or moral success look like? Where do immigrants and their lived realities fit within our definitions of success?

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