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Studying in Mexico enables PCC staff to immerse in language, culture

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“Good morning, class. My name is Ita. Welcome to Spanish A-2. Over the next two weeks we will learn the present and past tenses, along with commands and how to use direct and indirect pronouns.”

And so began my Spanish class taught by Itandehui Concepción González Jiménez, a teacher at Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, an international language school in the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.

Teacher Itandehui Concepción González Jiménez reviews a lesson with students in her Spanish class at Instituto Cultural Oaxaca.

I was one of a dozen (lucky) faculty and staff from Portland Community College tapped to participate in a two-week Spanish immersion program, a summer term intercultural exchange the college launched in 2007. Applicants submit proposals to PCC’s selection committee outlining how two weeks of study at ICO will assist them in their work at the college. Upon their return to Portland, participants apply their Oaxaca experience in college-wide activities such as the annual International Education Week celebration in November.

Funded through the college’s Office of International Education, this professional development opportunity supports PCC’s commitment to expand and refine the inclusion of international and multicultural aspects of the world across college curricula, services and related activities. It also bolsters awareness of global issues and encourages cross-cultural understanding and communication at PCC.

“The number of our international and immigrant students is growing, which means the college is serving an increasingly diverse population,” said Jane Walster, assistant director of PCC’s Office of International Education.

“A program like this helps to equip our staff and faculty with understanding and openness when working with new and different populations,” she said.

A typical street in Oaxaca City, Mexico, where PCC partners with Instituto Cultural Oaxaca to offer a Spanish immersion program.

Classes at ICO began on a Monday morning after new students completed early morning placement exams. For the next two weeks, PCC participants took language classes – taught completely in Spanish, with no English allowed – from 9 a.m. to noon, followed by hour-long conversation classes with their teachers and classmates.

González Jiménez was an industrial engineer for five years before making a career change to join ICO and teach mostly beginning and advanced beginning Spanish classes. A native of Oaxaca, she had a seemingly bottomless well of patience as my classmates and I muddled our way through the day’s lessons and discussion of the previous night’s homework. I cringed as we asked questions in Spanish — sometimes forgetting to use verbs or nouns — in an attempt to understand directions or gain clarity on a grammar rule.

“I love teaching,” González Jiménez said simply, in spite of her students’ knowledge gaps, “and my hope is that my students develop a love for Oaxaca and continue their study of Spanish after they return home.”

Afternoons featured two-hour culture classes so that students could be exposed to – and gain an appreciation for – native Oaxacan art forms, as well as daily “intercambio exchanges” that enabled students to converse with local Oaxacans interested in improving their English. The first half of the hour-long session would be in English or Spanish, with the second half in the other language so that both partners benefitted.

And those from PCC attended lectures designed by ICO – on Oaxaca’s cultural diversity and history and Mexico’s educational system, as well as a Spanish language film about immigration.

PCC faculty and staff from across the district — students at Instituto Cultural Oaxaca this year.

“There were so many things that I took away from this experience on both professional and personal levels,” said Cortney Nylen, the education coordinator of PCC’s Workforce Development Programs at the college’s Willow Creek Center and a part-time instructor at the PCC Rock Creek campus, in the English for Speakers of Other Languages department.

“I experienced the emotions of being a student in a foreign culture – as in the triumphs of understanding a conversation, as well as the frustrations of misunderstanding a verb usage,” said Nylen. “Because of this, I can more deeply empathize with the ESOL students I work with at the college.”

Nylen – and countless other students from around the world — have benefitted from ICO since it opened its doors in 1984. The school was launched by Lucero Topete and her late husband; Topete continues to run the school with her two sons, along with three assistant directors who serve as liaisons for English-speaking, French-speaking and Japanese-speaking students from abroad.

“My husband and I wanted to show the cultural richness of Mexico,” said Topete, “especially southern Mexico, with its 2,000 language dialects, 17 Indian indigenous groups, the pyramids, the mountains, the trees, the fruits . . . the real Mexico, with its many riches — we wanted to share that.”

The entrance to Instituto Cultural Oaxaca in Oaxaca City, Mexico.

The school was once the home of Topete’s maternal grandparents, who willed it to Topete’s mother. Married and living in Mexico City, she rented the house to vacationers to help with expenses related to running the house but built a bungalow in the garden for her personal use when she came to visit and check on the property.

Topete eventually inherited the house from her mother. She married a native from Oaxaca and returned to her roots, moving to Oaxaca City from Mexico City in 1976 to take a position as a historian while her husband taught Spanish classes at the house. Before long she joined him, broadening the kinds of courses offered to include those on Oaxacan culture and history, archeology, indigenous populations and their languages, and more.

Because of its history, ICO is unlike other school properties. It boasts gardens filled with vibrant, colorful flowers, gently curving fruit trees, graceful fountains, tiled terraces, and shaded verandas — much like a home might offer.

This touches on another unique aspect of the program. Participants are given the option of staying with local families or residing in dormitory-like “posadas” over their two weeks in Oaxaca City. Most choose home stays, to add to the language immersion experience. I was no different, and my first Spanish “class” began the night of our arrival into Oaxaca, when my host mother Guadalupe Diaz San Gines — a 64-year-old dynamo of energy — and her sister, Luisa Castillo, picked me up at the airport to take me to their house in the Colonial Reforma area of the city. The 30-minute car ride was mostly in Spanish, as I attempted to share a bit about my family and work with PCC and what I hoped to learn over the next couple of weeks.

Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, in the heart of Oaxaca City — an exquisite example of Baroque architecture in Mexico.

Students ate breakfast with their host families, as well as several “comidas” — similar to supper in mid-afternoon — throughout their stay. Conversation flowed, with Spanish and English dictionaries being leafed through over meals as students and hosts strove to find the “right” words to use.

“My most lasting memories from Oaxaca will be the personal connections, like the care and patience shown by my host family,” said participant Luis Menchu, manager of PCC’s Web services based at the Sylvania campus, who oversees the college’s Web site and Intranet portal.

In sharing his host family’s day-to-day routine, Menchu met their grandchildren, was given a tour of the city close to the start of his two-week stay, and visited several local marketplaces with them, for produce, clothing and gifts to take home.

The weekend bridging the two-week stay gave PCC participants the chance to visit two nearby towns as part of tours organized by ICO.

PCC’s Priscilla Loanzan holds a candle made by one of the En Via micro loan participants, for use in the local church in Teotitlán del Valle.

Saturday’s road trip was to Teotitlán del Valle, a pueblo about an hour away known for its Zapotec history and fine woven goods. The visit was hosted by Fundación En Via (, a non-profit organization that combines interest-free micro loans, educational programs, and sustainable tourism to combat poverty in Oaxaca. Nicole Tobin, coordinator of PCC’s Study Abroad programs, worked with ICO in advance to confirm logistics.

“The En Via tours are relatively new and very different from others ICO offers,” said Tobin. “We liked the idea of the PCC group getting the chance to learn about how micro finance works — and getting to meet some of the borrowers.”

En Via’s micro loan program offers women the opportunity to create or expand small businesses, so they can provide for themselves and their families. Tour fees are put toward interest-free micro loans for borrowers, and once loans are paid back, to provide for educational programs like English and business classes so that borrowers learn how to make financial decisions to fully capitalize on their loans.

Those in the PCC group visited some of the borrowers who spoke about their business projects and artisanal trades, like candle-making, rug weaving and chocolate-making.

“Meeting the En Via women in Teotitlán and learning about their families, and the Zapotec traditions in their communities, was one of my favorite experiences – something I know I will carry with me for the rest of my life,” said Shawna Poppe, an administrative assistant at PCC Rock Creek who also participated in this year’s program.

Sunday offered a visit to Monte Albán, a large pre-Columbian archaeological site to the west of Oaxaca City. Founded in approximately 500 BCE, Monte Albán was one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica and served as the base of the Zapotec socio-political and economic power for nearly 1,000 years. The city’s ruins reflect the people’s knowledge of science, mathematics, architecture and astronomy that enabled them to calculate agricultural cycles, predict seasonal changes, and determine the proximity of the rainy season.

The founders of Monte Albán were experts in science, mathematics, architecture and astronomy.

Having returned from Oaxaca, participants have already begun planning how they will incorporate their experience into their work at PCC. Nylen intends to develop workshops to assist the college’s Workforce Development staff to better understand the needs of its Mexican clients and students, specifically, a workshop to inform GED staff about the Mexican education system. Poppe hopes to continue her study of Spanish so that she can help Spanish-speaking students she interacts with regularly, including students enrolled in PCC’s ESOL program and its High School Equivalency Program which assists migrant and seasonal farm workers. Menchu will continue to share his experience with fellow staff members as a means to support the college’s commitment to internationalization.

Several others have agreed to be panelists in sessions on multiple PCC campuses as part of International Education Week beginning Nov. 13. Logistics planning for these began in August.

That’s the reaction Topete seeks for those who have studied at ICO.

“My hope is that our students gain a bi-cultural understanding,” said Topete, when asked what her goals are for students at ICO, like those from PCC.

“A person can easily learn Spanish, but learning a language can be impersonal. When you put in people, food, gardens, fruit, trees – life — the learning of Spanish becomes easier because you’re happy, and you want to communicate that happiness and your experience to your loved ones, to those you care about.”

Which means the happiness and learning experienced by participants in this year’s Oaxaca program will be shared with PCC students.

Kate Chester is the community relations manager at the Sylvania Campus. She plans to apply her Oaxaca experience in her work with the college’s Internationalization Initiative; to develop new community partnerships between the college and organizations dedicated to Portland’s Spanish-speaking population; to serve as a conversation partner with Spanish-speaking students; and to continue her outreach to Spanish language media in Portland.


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