Coe and Cornell team up for foreign language experiment

'They were all thrilled that we're thinking about this'

Actually using a foreign language is among the best ways to learn one, and Coe and Cornell colleges believe they’ve found a way to help students do that while also serving the wider Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon communities.

The private colleges recently applied for and received a $50,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to develop over the next two years foreign language programming aimed at giving students the chance to apply their world-language learning to “concrete issues” in the community.

For example, the collaboration seeks to connect domestic students with international students in a more intentional way; deploy language learners to local nonprofits to help Spanish- and French-speaking immigrants and refugees; and offer after-class programs in schools with fewer language opportunities.

As program creators map out possibilities for the partnership, which they hope will continue long-term, they also envision students helping local hospitals and health care providers with language training and cultural competency.

“We’re going to be experimenting, and not everything’s going to work for the students as well as for the community partners the first time around,” said John Gruber-Miller, languages professor at Cornell. “The fact that we have two years gives us a chance to sort of tweak and revise and maybe make it work better.”

The colleges — specifically through Coe’s new Center for Health and Society and Cornell’s Dimensions program — plan to roll out some of the new programming this fall, Gruber-Miller said. They’ll introduce additional grant-funded activities in Spring 2018, including Coe and Cornell courses sharing curricular materials and student-engagement opportunities.

Course topics could range from immigration to ethnic identity to integration challenges. In Summer 2018, a Summer Language and Society Institute will encourage Coe and Cornell students to develop practical applied-language skills.

Eventually, Gruber-Miller said, the programming could culminate with some type of certificate — perhaps a “certificate of intercultural competency or language competency.” That, he said, would “give students something to not only work for but have a way of saying to other people, ‘Look, I’m not just a French major … I’ve really studied and worked with other people and have a much greater understanding of their needs and cultures and backgrounds.”

That cultural piece, Gruber-Miller said, is paramount in the program’s mission.

“It’s a super valuable kind of experience for language students — and when we say language students, we don’t just mean the language but also interacting culturally as well,” he said. “Because you might be able to express something in words, but you might not understand all the background that is part of those words until you actually start communicating with that person.”

During a recent workshop on potential programming, the colleges invited four community service organizations to come mull collaboration — Catholic Charities in Cedar Rapids, the Intercultural Center of Iowa, Young Parents Network Cedar Rapids, and The Catherine McAuley Center, which provides tutoring for adult learners and has expanded its services to support English-language learning.

“They were all thrilled that we’re thinking about this,” Gruber-Miller said. “And we could have had more if we wanted.”

The grant from the Mellon Foundation — which, among other things, supports diverse and democratic societies by supporting higher education institutions — could compel future funding for continued program evolution, Gruber-Miller said.

The hope, officials said, is to pursue “bolder initiatives and transformative foreign language endeavors” that allow Coe and Cornell to “explore novel, bold reforms in their foreign language programs that will appeal to and benefit future generations of students.”

The Coe-Cornell collaboration itself is relatively uncommon but could become more familiar, according to John Chaimov, a Coe associate professor of German.

“We haven’t done as much as we could with our colleagues up the road at Cornell College,” he said. “But we’ve got people who are teaching in some similar areas, and there were just possibilities for better collaboration.”

The colleges’ partnership is expected to — among other things — help immigrants and refugees comes at a time when the topic is daily a part of the national and international dialogue. Chaimov said the genesis of this partnership was not political.

“But it’s certainly going to get our students firsthand experience that will make sure they’re informed by more than headlines,” he said.

World languages taught at Coe — a private, Cedar Rapids-based liberal arts college with about 1,400 students — include Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Mandarin, Latin, and Greek. Cornell — a private liberal arts school in Mount Vernon with just under 1,000 students — has a similar lineup, but also teaches Russian.

“I anticipate that this grant will be the stimulus for future cooperative academic ventures and synergies between these two fine colleges,” Cornell Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean Joe Dieker said in a statement.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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