Reading Spanish-language stories to local children, translating resource documents for unhoused people, and tutoring local dual-language immersion elementary school students: These are all examples of the work students in the Spanish Department has been doing to center community engagement in its curriculum.
The department’s work began in 2017 with a grant from the Mellon Foundation titled “Redesigning the Curriculum.” Using this grant, the department began to reconsider the comprehensive exam in place for senior majors at the time, which had grown to be unpopular among students and faculty alike, department faculty told The Student. The faculty landed on the capstone project as a replacement, and specified that students’ projects could either be creative, research-based, or community-centered.
The department’s first capstone course took place in the Fall 2018 under the supervision of Professor of Spanish Paul A. Schroeder-Rodriguez. To his delight, the majority of students enrolled opted for projects that served the community. In Fall 2020, for example, at the beginning of the pandemic, Spanish major Dana Kulma ’21 partnered with the Amherst Survival Center — a nonprofit focused on serving local homeless and impoverished people — to translate various important policy and inventory documents from English into Spanish, so that Spanish speakers in need could better understand the resources available to them.
The department went about organizing this partnership, and various others, by connecting with the college’s Center for Community Engagement (CCE). When majors want to do a community service project, the CCE reaches out to various local organizations to find out what their needs are, and coordinates with the Spanish Department to match interested students with the organizations where they could help the most.
Spanish Lecturer Sarah Piazza has also been instrumental in organizing community-centered projects that allow students in her classes to engage with the town. “One of my goals was to help show students in the language classes different community partners they could work with,” she told The Student. She wanted students to experience “how they could use their Spanish education in the community and not just in the classroom.” In the 2022-23 academic year, Piazza organized a partnership with Jones Library that gave students the opportunity to read stories to local children in Spanish. Additionally, with help from the CCE, Piazza invited bilingual teachers to Spanish 101 from Caminantes, a local dual-language immersion program at nearby Fort River Elementary school.
The Spanish faculty emphasized the importance of their connection with the CCE, and their gratitude for the center’s work. “Sometimes it can be hard to get in touch with third party organizations as a professor or lecturer,” Piazza said. “[The CCE’s] support has been invaluable in terms of reaching out to community partners, sharing other partners I didn’t know about, and reflecting on what we could do differently in the future for community engagement.”
Student reception to the work has also been positive, even in spite of the inherent difficulties of community-based work. “For the students, it has its ups and downs,” Chair of the Spanish Department Sara J. Brenneis said.
“Because you’re working with a community organization, it’s very different from doing a research project in a class or writing an essay,” she said. “You have to work on a community timeline, which is not the same as a semester timeline, and you have to be flexible.” But in the end, she said, students come away with the ability to “understand how the Spanish skills they’ve been working so hard on over the last four years translate into real world applications.”
The work of the Spanish Department in centering community engagement calls into question the very notion of what a liberal arts education should be. “I’d just push back against the idea that the college experience is isolated from the world,” Brenneis said. “We’re here to think about how we make an impact in the communities around us.”
Piazza, a beneficiary of a liberal arts education herself, echoed Brenneis, explaining that during her undergraduate experience, “some of the most powerful assignments that [she] did had a connection to the larger community.” An English and French major in college, she recalled a project in which she translated a traditional Algerian story into French, and taught it to young students at a local French immersion school. “That was really, really valuable for me,” she added.
In giving advice to faculty from other departments who are hoping to take on this work, Brenneis emphasized the importance of creating a shared sense of purpose, and listening to those around you. “You have to start with the groundwork of being able to share experiences and listen to one another,” she said. “To make big changes, especially around a curriculum, people need to feel like they understand why they’re doing it, and who they’re doing it for.”
“You can do a restorative justice circle,” she continued, “you could have a retreat, you could have just a more informal meeting, but that process of sharing and listening is actually really important to having a shared purpose in the department. I think that’s where we started, and that’s given us a good tailwind to be able to make some of these changes.”
In the end, Brenneis wanted to emphasize that this work, albeit lengthy and difficult, is possible for every department. “I think it’s possible,” she said. “But I also recognize that making big changes is really hard. It takes a lot of work and open-mindedness.” The work, in the end, paid off, as faculty were able to better connect their work to organizations outside of the Amherst bubble, and students were able to — as Piazza put it — “experience the community as a classroom.”