As the semester is already half-way through, I imagine it is about time I introduce myself and my goals for my community service-learning experience.
Why did you begin to study Spanish?
I began to study Spanish my sophomore year of high school (after a failed attempt at French during my freshman year). I’d grown close to a few friends with Spanish-speaking parents and my friendships with them sparked an interest in Spanish. When the time came to apply for college, I decided that entering as a Spanish major would allow me to pursue something I loved while trying to figure out what I wanted to study in the long-run. (As it turns out, I never added that second major because Spanish continued to be the main focus.)
What role has Spanish had in your life (and in your education)?
I began to explain that I formed a personal connection to the language through my friendships in high school. I continued to build personal connections to the language and cultures during my first two years at the University of Illinois by surrounding myself with friends whose interest in Spanish helped fuel my own. Many of these friends helped make the transition from semi-Spanish exposure to immersion, an adjustment we had to face during the 2011-2012 school year.
I had decided early into my college career that I would study abroad my junior year in Barcelona. The idea of spending a semester abroad was enticing, but the opportunity to develop a life for myself and truly connect to a city and culture for an entire year was incomparable. Rather than give a broad overview of lessons learned, I’m going to focus on one particular evening. I’d spent much of the year becoming good friends with a girl in the program who had three Catalan roommates, with whom we’d become comfortable speaking Spanish (or Catalan!). This night was especially memorable because a good friend of mine whom I’d met three years prior, when she was an exchange student in my high school, was visiting from Italy. She and I were invited to dinner at the apartment and I was admittedly concerned that the language barrier would prevent us from being able to communicate. A few moments after arriving, I realized that there was no reason to worry. At the table, three of us were students from the U of I program, who could speak English, Spanish, and some Catalan. The three roommates spoke Spanish and Catalan fluently, and one had even studied in Italy and still remembered most of the Italian she’d learned. My friend spoke both Italian and English fluently, but could understand almost all of the conversations in Spanish or Catalan because of the similarities. Throughout the evening, we all joked that there had not been a single moment when only one language was being spoken. The most surprising part of the conversation was that the language differences had enhanced our experience rather than hindered it. It was an opportunity for all of us to practice what we’d learned and try something new.
Now, with that example I want to emphasize the most important role Spanish has played in my life: a means of, and an inspiration for, communication. Spanish is a force that is constantly encouraging me to meet and interact with new people. Languages can create barriers between people or they can equip us with the skills needed to communicate and understand them. In the example above, (almost) all of us had to use a language that was not our first to order in interact with everyone seated at the table. There was no judgment or concern of mispronunciation because everyone understood the difficulties that come with learning another language.
How do you hope to use Spanish in your community project?
With my community project I hope to continue to interact with people whose backgrounds and experiences differ greatly from my own. Initially, I was excited to have an experience using Spanish in a more professional setting since most of my experiences had been confined to classrooms and personal activities. I’d had very little interaction with people with whom I’d use usted and that was a surprising challenge.
I also hope to show people that the desire to learn and communicate is not one-sided. Many of the patients who come through the Frances Nelson Dental Center have limited English skills, which places them in a group that often receives negativity. I want to assure them that there are people who are dedicated to learning about their cultures and experiences and who are excited to be part of a diverse community.