Walk into the Kellogg Center on a Student Orientation, Advising, and Registration morning and you likely saw a joyful Bobby Wilson donning a purple and gold Yo Hablo Español button.
The Intercultural Affairs coordinator, just like any SOAR staff, was there to help. He greeted visitors; provided flyers and forms; gave an overview of the day; and answered any questions. Unlike most staff, though, Wilson spoke in Spanish to help visitors who spoke Spanish as first language.
Albion College’s diversity statement states that in order to provide the best liberal arts education, its campus and curriculum must be immersive, inclusive and diverse.
The Class of 2021 itself is one of the most diverse student bodies Albion has seen, a realization of the admissions office’s strategic plan. Although numbers are unofficial until the tenth day of classes, nearly 46 percent of the 520 first-years are students of color. Almost 16 percent are what the college identifies as Hispanic and 34 percent of students are out-of-state, many of whom are from Texas, Chicago and California.
By immersing Spanish into its programming, SOAR is meeting the needs of its diversifying student body and their respective families.
Just as other SOAR staff were present at each event, so was Wilson, other faculty and current students to help those who felt more comfortable speaking Spanish than English. That meant being available to talk to at lunch, on campus tours and at each informational meeting.
Other initiatives included translating English documents to Spanish and hiring an outside company to provide headsets for Spanish-speaking visitors during sessions. The company would translate the discussion live so as to not leave its wearers out of the loop.
Wilson understands how difficult it can be for a student to attend or a parent to participate in a college whose primary language is not one’s own. He was glad to have received grateful feedback from many Spanish-speaking parents during SOAR’s four days.
“I think sometimes if a student needs help with something, parents are sometimes there to push us, but if the parent isn’t given the information in a language they can understand, there is not really much that a parent can do,” said Wilson. “I thought it was very motivating and very encouraging to see parents asking questions and showing interest in what we talked about during SOAR.”obby Wilson
He estimates that about 35 individuals were assisted by SOAR’s bilingual staff but was able to introduce students and parents alike to students, faculty and staff who may assist them in their years to come at Albion.
Dr. Kyle Shanton, chair of the education department, also saw positive reactions, not just from Spanish-speakers, but from English-speaking parents watching Kyle interact in Spanish nearby. They would mention to him how great it was to make everyone feel welcome.
Interactions like that are reflective of what he hopes SOAR, and the college itself, will become.
“I would hope that we would just see SOAR as SOAR, and in seeing it that way, we don’t see it as just in English anymore,” he said.
Shanton points out that our nation has always been polyglot – made of many languages. Proof of that lies in the lack of an official language. He said that when programs like SOAR are created, multiple languages should be used to ensure those that want access have access. Parent, student, faculty and community input is necessary during the process.
In order to have everyone spend time together and get along, Shanton said Spanish – or any other language – will sometimes need to be spoken.
But Shanton warns of the risk segmenting speakers of a minority language into separate programming can bring. He has been a teacher for over three decades, and not just in higher education. He’s done research, he’s been in workshops and he’s taught in many areas of the U.S., some of whose majority ethnicities had Spanish as their central language. He’s found that when words like “program” are used, dividing and conquering follows suit.
“The history of this institution is that it’s been English-dominant, for sure, but sometimes English only,” he said. “That the only way to deal with another language is to segregate groups. Have a program for this group and have the tradition of the program be English-only rather than it be influenced by the new influx of languages, the ethnicities and cultural practices.”
Although there are kinks to work out, Shanton believes this year’s SOAR is a working step toward ensuring this does not happen anymore.