When Higher Education Speaks Your Language





Before University of Oregon sophomore Sarahi Ortiz was a student, she was a high school student from Los Angeles touring the University of Oregon over spring break. While touring, Ortiz immediately felt like she made a mistake in deciding to attend UO the next fall.

“People don’t look like me here,” she said to her mom, as they walked around campus. She recalled it as “an interesting transition because I just felt like the odd man out. Never in my life had I ever felt different from others.”

Ortiz is one of the students enrolled in the Spanish Heritage Language program, a series of Spanish courses offered at UO through the Department of Romance Languages. According to the program’s webpage, it was “designed specifically for Spanish heritage language learners, students who have a personal, familial, or community connection to Spanish.”

It’s possible that the program’s focus on community and access to resources could aid in retention, that is, students choosing to continue until graduation. This could raise graduation rates for Latinx students, a demographic whose graduation rate is lower, although that relationship has not been studied.

Many students say they appreciate the program, not just for its curriculum but also because it provides them with peers who look and talk like them. Since the creation of the program in 2012, additional sections of the courses have been added due to higher demand.

Carina Garcia, a heritage student, said the SHL program was “the first place that I had the opportunity to meet people that had similar backgrounds to me, people who grew up with Spanish in their homes or their communities...I made my first friends from the UO campus in that class.”

The initial goal of the SHL program was to create a “program that focused on questions of language ideologies in order to create an academic framework,” said Heather Quarles, senior instructor II of Spanish. Faculty wanted to create a safe place where conversations about language and culture could be had in an academic context.

Kelli Yerian, an instructor and researcher in the Department of Linguistics, noted that SHL students “might’ve had a lot of mixed messages about what their identities or language means. Exploring that in ways that are important for the learners of the class so that they have control over that, I think, would be important.”

SHL faculty wanted to create an “anti-racist pedagogy” because “when talking about language, racism and classism come into play,” Quarles said.

For heritage learner Caitlin Saavedra, the SHL program provides “a safe learning environment because in a lot of Spanish classes there are a lot of white people in the classes and a lot of the time it’s kind of hard to speak up for yourself.”

She specifically experienced this in the 100-level Spanish sequence: “I [felt] like these people take up a lot of space in the classes and I get they’re trying to understand the material but at the same time, it’s hard when people try to speak of experiences that aren’t theirs.”

For heritage learners, language and culture are “intrinsically tied to one another” said Angel Dorantes, the advising and retention coordinator in the Department of Education Studies. The faculty who spearheaded the SHL program saw the need for community and common ground for students like Saavedra and created Spanish courses for Spanish speakers.

Another early goal was community building. “It was very obvious to me that our second language [courses] didn’t create that space,” said Quarles. This is because the Spanish second language courses are designed for second language learners, not heritage learners who come into the classroom with knowledge and experience of the language and culture.

In the SHL program, the teaching style encourages prior knowledge and cultural identity. “If you’re communicating effectively, you’re communicating effectively,” said Quarles. Andrea Vanessa Castillo, a former heritage student, appreciates that the SHL program relieves her of tensions she’s had growing up when going to Spanish classes.

Yerian said that for the curriculum of language classes to be successful, “it needs to be clear to the learners what they’re getting out of it and why they’re doing it.” Yerian noted curriculum shines when “there’s room in that curriculum development for the learners to be in charge.” The SHL program’s curriculum reflect this view.

Castillo said, “the best part about the program is just how it gives the opportunity…to be in an educational setting with the understanding that we are ultimately in charge of our language and that we’re not having someone tell us ‘oh, that’s not actually how you say this phrase or this word in Spanish’ when that’s how we grew up speaking it.”

According to the University of Oregon Registrar, 26.8 percent of students enrolled in the university identify as a minority group. The UO campaigns for diversity, enrolling more students of color now than ever before. The largest minority group on campus identifies as Hispanic/Latinx, with 2,541 students. But still, budget cuts to the Department of Romance Languages were made last spring. It’s possible that these cuts will directly affect the Spanish Heritage Language program, enlarging class sizes, which ultimately stunts its growth and capacity to serve students well, given the small, community-driven structure of these classes.

Underlying all of this is the fact that graduation rates for Latinx students are still low. For the 2015 UO cohort of students classified as Hispanic/Latinx, only 45 percent had graduated within four years. That percentage is 60 percent for students graduating within five years. And that number jumps again, to 66 percent, by the end of their sixth year.

Whether it takes four years or six years to graduate, this demographic sees fewer graduates than white students by about 10 percent, according to the University of Oregon Office of Registrar’s Student Right-to-Know page.

To be sure, this issue is not exclusive to UO. According to the Pew Research Institute, “among Hispanics ages 25 to 29, just 15 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree or higher.” This is partly due to the fact that “Hispanics are less likely than some other groups to enroll in a four-year college, attend an academically selective college and enroll full-time,” the Pew Research Institute stated.

But other factors affect whether someone in this demographic obtains a degree. Hispanic/Latinx students’ “familial and social ties to home are particularly strong,” said the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank. In turn, these students are more likely to have family obligations or have to work to afford college.

The SHL program does not track retention data for its cohorts so it’s unclear whether the initiative is aiding retention. Cohort retention data “would be really useful information,” said Quarles. In the start of the program, retention of Latinx students was not a main goal of the program. Since then, it has become more clear that one responsibility of the program is to aid in retention of these students because the Department of Romance Languages is a part of the university and since “the UO is making efforts to recruit, there need to be classes relevant to the community,” said Quarles.

The program’s curriculum reflects the importance of connecting students with the services they need, not only to stay in school, but to enjoy it as well. The SHL program incorporates visits to student services like the Career Center, Knight Library Special Collections, Center for Multicultural Academic Excellence and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art into the curriculum.

One key to retention, said Dorantes, is “the representation of faculty of color” that serve students needs. For Garcia, getting help finding a job was “necessary for me to continue my education at the time,” she said. “I didn’t expect people to be so helpful.” But Garcia’s advisor helped her adjust to life in college and find work so she could continue her education.

Dorantes said the work of the faculty needs to be validated by the institution when reaching out to the students and the community. He said that these faculty members often find themselves in the situation of having to choose between meeting with students, a clear retention effort, or working on their publication because “at the end of the day, they’re going to be evaluated at their publication track record.”

The program is not perfect and heritage student Nico Marquez feels stronger marketing strategies would benefit it. “It’s a great program and I wouldn’t want anyone to really miss out on it,” Marquez said.

Ortiz thinks highly of the SHL program. It’s helped her embrace her cultural identity at UO, no longer being the odd man out. She said, “I can’t compare it to anything or to any other class just because I feel so comfortable speaking to my teachers about any problems that I’m having either in class, about life, just anything. The sense of community is the strongest in my Spanish Heritage classes.”

There were so many people like me that wanted to make the same differences in the world as me.

Sarahi Ortiz

Once I got into the Spanish Heritage Program, that’s when I started meeting more people I could relate to.

Caitlin Saavedra

Hear Caitlin’s story.

There’s a different understanding in the value of that part of our culture, the effortless Spanish that we speak.


Hear Andrea’s story



It made me think a lot deeper about Latino communities around the world.


Hear Nico’s story.

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