By Erik Schmidt '05
El Centro de Lenguas Modernas (CLM) sits along one of the cobbled streets so typical in the city of Granada. Its main building, unpretentious, is identified only by a small placard whose tiles play with the sun coming from the east. Passers-by could come and go without knowing what they were missing.
The interior of the CLM belies such a modest facade. Marbled pillars support a balcony-like top-floor hallway, and several of these are guarded by broadleaf foliage whose vines wander up more than a story. Through fragrant air one can look down over the railings to a fountain at the center of the ground floor; it is quiet and makes the interior space into a kind of plaza. It’s the sort of place where someone with Socratic tendencies would love to hang out.
The CLM is the base of operations for a program that has redefined the study abroad experience for Willamette students. And while it is administered by Willamette’s Office of International Education, it is designed for all of the members of the Independent Liberal Arts Colleges Abroad (ILACA) consortium: Gonzaga University, Pacific Lutheran University, the University of Portland, the University of Puget Sound, Seattle University and Willamette. Together, students from the Northwest can share a new view into the transformative experience of international study.
Site Director Mark Bennett’s office address in Granada makes him the remotest member of Willamette’s staff. An Englishman who has lived and worked in Spain for years, he brings with him an easy smile, a casually slung backpack and a handshake that Americans would call strong. He demonstrates that the program is the product of a solid team — including his wife, Maria Ortega Titos — and his priorities as director mesh remarkably well with what we see at Willamette.
Bennett fills several roles for his students. He is a professor and a counselor, a challenging influence and a calming one. His is the first voice that students grow accustomed to during their time in Spain, and his phone number is the one that they record in their own phones in case of emergency. His job is not one that fits handily into defined working hours — Spanish, American or otherwise.
The 40-or-so students who join Bennett at the CLM each semester are his primary responsibilities, and, together with resident and visiting professors (one of whom arrives each spring from an ILACA school), he manages an academic program that fits with the curricula of the ILACA members. Specifically, the lessons reinforce the priorities of critical inquiry, breadth, self-exploration and the understanding and acceptance of difference. They follow an ideal shared by all the participating schools: that intercultural education is propped up by specific curricular tools enabling students to understand, in a meaningful way, what they are seeing and feeling while abroad.
The Granada program was designed to offer smaller universities like Willamette the chance to contribute to a study abroad program of great range and depth. And like in many other programs, a primary element of the curriculum is language immersion. This is why students spend their time at a center for modern languages, and the reasoning is intuitive enough: Language and culture go hand-in-hand, and immersion in both allows students to take away more than they could ever learn sitting in one spot and reading a book.
Bennett takes the idea of immersion seriously and speaks to his students in Spanish from the minute they arrive. As one student put it, shocked to hear Bennett conducting his interview for The Scene in English, “We’re looking forward to the last day [of the program], but only because we get to hear Mark’s English accent for the first time!”
“This is study abroad,” Bennett muses, “but I often ask, ‘Where’s the study?’” The most immediate answer takes the form of the Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera (DELE), a mountain of a test that assesses Spanish language skills. The DELE could be compared to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) used commonly in the U.S. The DELE is recognized around the world by academic institutions and professionals in many fields of work, and high marks in it can be a serious boost for students as they look ahead to life beyond their schooling.
But the DELE is just one element of the curriculum. Students take a range of academic courses on-site, from the language-based Intensivo — a month-long course requirement that helps build practical Spanish skills — to exercise or art courses at nearby University of Granada’s cultural center, La Casa de Porras. Taken together, the course offerings at the CLM reflect a multifaceted curricular setup.
“I don’t want to have our students be limited in their experience,” Bennett says. “I want them to know the profound aspects of the culture.”
Achieving this involves going beyond specific content knowledge and into thorough cultural and historical analysis. “We can shape students’ views of culture based on lessons in history,” he explains. “Here, we’re talking five or six thousand years before Christ. Spain is a pluralistic place.” In addition to learning the facts — the who, what, where, when and why — students are asked to spend time with Spain’s bigger ideas. “We try to give students different views of the same ideas,” Bennett says. “They ultimately have to make their own informed decisions.” The trials of Spain’s history, from the conquests to the times of peace, the architecture and the art, the entangled religious history — these are the things that can inform students’ personal convictions and help them reevaluate how they look at the world.
In the end, it gets to the heart of the liberal arts tradition: Understand the conversation before you claim authority in it.
Bennett has a handy analogy to describe his approach in the classroom. “It’s as if the course comes with hooks on it,” he says, using his fingers to help articulate. “And we want to hang things on these hooks.” In this way, the experience is larger than the individual facts anddiscussions themselves. It’s a compilation of them, all connected, allowing students to experience the whole as something more profound than the pieces. It takes discussion and reflection, but that’s what the students are good at.
Bennett’s passion for academics is obvious. When describing the daily experience he remarks that “the directing [of the program] is the easy part — being on call constantly, the administrative duties, and so forth — it’s seeing students engage and evolve academically that is the most challenging and worthwhile.”
Sounds like someone from Willamette.
Study abroad is always a demanding experience — just being in a place far removed from the comfortable familiarity of home is eye-opening — but because students in Granada get an extra dose of the liberal arts ideas of critique, analysis and reflection, they’re growing from the get-go.
“the most interesting part of my job is the change I see in students. To witness this is a privilege.”
“There’s no ‘sitting and waiting’ approach in this program,” Bennett says. The lessons begin as soon as students make their way to the CLM and check out the literature saying that all curricular conversations are to be conducted in Spanish. “But,” he continues,
This change takes many forms. Often it is the student who arrives with shaky confidence in her Spanish skills and blossoms into near-fluency (all students are required to have at least intermediate Spanish skills before they arrive and begin Intensivo). Accents, slang and inflections, in Spanish as in other languages, vary noticeably by locale, so students often enjoy picking up on southern Spain’s particular type of Spanish. There, for example, many Spanish “ss” sounds evolve into something resembling the English “th” — and it gets more sophisticated than that. These differences, even when they go against what students might have learned previously in a language class, are part of the flavor and the challenge of the experience.
But there is also a subtler kind of change that takes place. It has to do with relationship building, and here we see another reason why the Granada program is such a good fit for Willamette students in particular.
“I establish a relationship with each student in Spanish,” Bennett says. It starts the day they arrive, and it takes commitment from both parties to avoid falling back on English. “But eventually I’m able to comfort them in Spanish, too,” he adds. Recalling a past situation involving a student and an emergency room, he provides an example: “In this emergency situation, [the student] was speaking only Spanish in an intense, busy hospital. This is a student who had resisted speaking Spanish for months, but it justcame out.” This kind of growth, Bennett continues, “is daily, it’s gradual. … It’s reactions to many different situations.”
If immersion is crucial to students’ understanding of the culture, then their home life while abroad is a key part of the process. Willamette study abroad students, regardless of whether they join the Granada program or another one, learn the distinction between “going on a trip” and engaging in the kind of learning experience that involves living with a new family and adapting to a new cultural paradigm.
Each student in the Granada program is connected at the start of the semester with a Spanish family, with whom they live, eat and play for the program’s duration (about four months if they go for the fall semester and five in the spring). It’s a good opportunity for learning new perspectives, working on language skills and experiencing Spanish customs; it can, however, be taxing. For example, some students learn that it’s difficult to be a vegetarian in Spain. Others find that communicating and thinking solely in a second language is both mentally and physically draining. Realizations like these challenge students to adapt — partly out of necessity — and wrestle with their own culturally derived priorities in order to coexist effectively.
It’s worth the time and effort. Students report consistently that the home stay is among the best and most illustrative parts of the experience — not because it’s easy, but because it helps them grow and leaves them with a cache of new experiences and bonds.
The Granada study abroad program begins long before students depart for Spain. After pre-departure orientation, which is provided by each ILACA school, each student begins a series of introductions that includes Bennett and his wife, Willamette’s staff and their fellow travelers. Then they initiate the student visa application process, learn about their home stay pairings and attend briefings on how to travel effectively and stay organized. There’s a lot to digest.
But these experiences, coupled with their time abroad, are often among the most illuminating of students academic careers. By studying in Granada, they learn about themselves and about others who view the world through entirely different lenses. Moreover, they internalize in a meaningful way the idea that cultural dissimilarity is valuable, even when it’s uncomfortable. It is a delicious irony of the study abroad experience that our ability to understand ourselves is tied directly to our understanding of those whose paths are very different.
Granada is one of many study abroad programs available to Willamette students. About 50 percent of Willamette students study internationally.
Country (Language of Instruction)
Canada (English, French)
Costa Rica (Spanish)
Czech Republic (English)
Estonia (English, Estonian)
Finland (English, Finnish)
Hungary (English, Hungarian)
Iceland (English, Icelandic)
Italy (English, Italian)
Japan (English, Japanese)
Latvia (English, Latvian, German, Russian)
The Netherlands (English)
New Zealand (English)
Northern Ireland (English)
South Africa (English)
Sweden (English, Swedish)
Switzerland (English, French, German)
United States — Chicago, Washington, D.C. (English)
Willamette’s international programming extends through a wide range of campus groups. Two recent news items shed some light on what has become an institutional habit.
August: Thirty-two percent of the 2009–10 incoming students at Atkinson Graduate School of Management are from outside the U.S., a fact that touches on the impact of the university’s graduate programs on the whole campus.
April: A group of Willamette Academy students attended the International Debate Education Association (IDEA) 2009 Youth Forum in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The trip was made possible by the Tom and Molly Bartlett Presidential Fund at Willamette University, a fund created by the Bartletts in 2005 to support special initiatives at the president’s discretion. Willamette is the U.S. base of operations for IDEA.