When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through crowds in metro tunnels and airports, it also posed a daunting challenge for the Lauder Institute: how to immerse students in a rich language learning environment.
The Lauder Institute of Management & International Studies, a joint degree program between the School of Arts & Sciences and the Wharton School, offers a unique component of advanced language studies that normally includes a summer immersion. Students, at the start of their two-year program towards an MBA and Masters of International Studies, almost immediately embark on immersion trips, a significant segment of which focuses on language and culture in regional programs. A student in the Spanish Latin America program, for example, could spend the summer in Argentina.
As the pandemic continued to produce restrictions and safety concerns, immersion trips were not possible. But modern technology has allowed the program to rethink what is called immersion.
“Because we couldn’t travel, our goal was to develop an immersive environment for our program despite the limitations of the pandemic. The idea and spirit of [the language projects] was to connect with communities and live a virtual immersion experience, ”explains Mili Lozada, director of the Faculty of Languages and Culture at the Lauder Institute.
Students were invited to engage with organizations related to their linguistic field and to develop a community-driven team project. This summer outreach project aimed to connect students to the needs observed in the Philadelphia area and abroad. A group of Spanish-speaking students from Lauder worked with the Mexican Consulate in Philadelphia to investigate immigrants’ knowledge of finance and economics; Hindi-speaking students, meanwhile, worked with a music academy in Delhi to explore business as well as socio-cultural trends in Western music in India.
“We developed this project so that students can actually connect with community organizations, NGOs, universities and others to develop projects that meet the needs of this organization and, of course, engage the backgrounds of the students in language, culture, technology and business. »Says Mili Lozada. “It started in 2020 because of the pandemic, and it’s interesting to see how the pandemic has allowed us to create a meaningful learning experience for our students without traveling. “
Angela Huang began her experience with the Lauder Institute in June and is continuing her advanced studies in Chinese. She saw the project as an opportunity to connect with the wider Philadelphia community through the language and step out of her comfort zone at Penn.
“I admire our administration and our faculty for wanting us to have the chance to experience this new city and community that we have all moved to, because I think few of us had lived in Philly before and that was a way to begin to understand the broader challenges facing these communities in Philadelphia, ”Huang said of the project’s experience.
She and her partner, Matt Griffith, decided to work with a local Chinese language school, the Guanghua Chinese School, in Blue Bell, Montgomery County. During the early days of the pandemic, Huang said, the organization raised funds to purchase PPE for their community and developed translation centers for COVID-19 test sites. They also wrote community service newsletters in Chinese and posted them on Weixin, a popular Chinese social media platform. However, they wanted these articles to reach out to English-speaking communities as well and make connections between the Chinese-American community and the rest of Philadelphia.
To help, Huang and Griffith translated articles into English and synthesized them into one article that they are now trying to find a publication for. She says she not only gained a new respect for the work of translators, but learned from the efforts of the school she worked with.
“It’s easy to think that everyone is very divided, especially with social media, now more than ever, but when it comes to times of crisis like this it was really amazing to watch how much the community has come together, ”Huang said.
Alexander Robinson, a Lauder student from Atlanta, worked remotely with the University of São Paulo in southern Brazil to bridge the communication gap between its newly created eastern campus and the underserved communities around it. This new campus was designed to foster a relationship with the neighboring community, he says, and a specific outreach effort by the university is to teach nutrition to members of the community.
Robinson, who spent time in Brazil for a gap year program at Princeton, speaks Portuguese and is a yoga teacher, was excited about the idea.
“I was elated because not only did it resonate with my personal experience and my journey to wellness, but it reminded me of that year of bridging that I did in Brazil with underserved communities across Princeton but in a very different context of southern Brazil instead of northeastern Brazil, “says Robinson.” I would say this relates, in some ways, to what I want to do after my studies, because I’m interested in the food and beverage marketing. “
“It was difficult to be separated from the local context,” he adds of the experience. “And having to dig up memories from eight years ago in Brazil, in a different place. And it was a fun exercise in translating our contexts in Philadelphia and the assumptions we make about what people know and have access – through Zoom – to such a different environment. “
In the end, he was able to create brochures and a promotional video that explain the basics of the exercise.
“It’s fun to talk about immersion when you’re in another country, but I think it helped me learn more about a part of Brazil that I had never been to, even though I have not left Philly, ”says Robinson. “It was a very different community and context from any I had ever known. “
Huang and Robinson both expressed appreciation for the self-sustaining nature of the projects and the emphasis on seeking cross-cultural communication even from their home in Philadelphia. Robinson said it also reframe his idea of immersion.
“I didn’t expect to go to business school and be thrown into a community service project, but I’m really glad the Lauder Institute did this,” he says. “And that it is clearly a value of the Institute to serve others, and our language courses and our cultural immersion have a higher purpose which is not only selfish:” What do I take away from the immersion experience? “”
In the future, regardless of when the immersion trip resumes, Mili Lozada imagines including the community engagement component with language teaching.
“As an educator, one of the great things you want is to create an environment in which students can learn independently and at the same time in a meaningful way,” says Mili Lozada. “Students were able to navigate different environments dealing with different issues and think about learning from that perspective. And so, I think it’s a unique opportunity for engagement outside of the classroom: enabling students to face real issues, act on them and develop linguistic and cultural awareness, and I think it’s an interesting way to do it.