Students learn while teaching abroad

Westfield – Nine Westfield State University education majors and two faculty members traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico during winter break as part of a short-term study abroad course.
The course, “Civic Engagement and Language Immersion in Puerto Rico,” focused heavily on the connections between Puerto Rico and western Massachusetts, partly through assigned readings related to Puerto Rican history and immigration to Holyoke. During the course, students began to more fully appreciate the culture of Puerto Rico, the history of the territory, and its influence upon and connection to western Massachusetts.
The program was led by Robin Marion, an instructor in the Department of Education and field site coordinator, and Wilma Ortiz, an assistant professor of education. The two instructors felt there was a need to have students fully understand the culture of Puerto Rico.
“These soon-to-be teachers must learn to appreciate cultural differences and how these differences can enrich our lives as well as the classroom. Conversely, it is important for individuals to fully understand how one’s culture impacts teaching and student learning,” Ortiz said.
Students maintained daily journals, attended and participated in seminars, and engaged with the local community through a civic engagement project by supporting teachers at the Sociedad de Educacion y Rehabilitacion (SER). The course also gave students a chance to develop Spanish language skills each day as they were immersed in the culture and language of Puerto Rico.
Matthew Campagna, ’17, a special education major with a concentration in reading from Springfield, felt comfortable visiting the territory and picking up the language.
“I thoroughly enjoyed learning Spanish and then using it with the people there. Most people spoke English where we were, so if I said something wrong, they could still understand me,” he said.
Both instructors believe that civic engagement courses, studies that align curriculum with the public good, are essential because they provide students with an authentic element that cannot be found in a traditional classroom. They added that this course was particularly important because it was an education course.
“This course was intended to help students develop an appreciation for Puerto Rican culture with the goal to shift preconceived ideas of culture, language, and identity differences from a deficit to an asset model,” Ortiz said.
Participants were able to see some local points of interest through a variety of excursions, which included a walking tour of Old San Juan, a trip to the San Juan Art Museum, shopping at the Marketplace in Rio Piedras, and a day trip to El Yunque Rainforest and Luquillo Beach.
“Walking around on the island was great. I loved seeing the beaches, local landmarks, and the rain forest,” Campagna said.
The instructors hoped that students’ learning would continue to increase even after the course ended.
Marion said that she and Ortiz wanted students to “develop new insights into their own identity and better understand how personal experiences and assumptions shape their worldview.”
Students will present their civic engagement projects at the Spring Civic Engagement Symposium.
This study-abroad course and all international courses are handled by International Programs, located in the Parenzo Hall Lobby at Westfield State University. For more information on study-abroad opportunities, please contact International Programs at (413) 572-8819 or email them at [email protected]

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