Students Spend Summer Diving into Foreign Cultures

Author: Arts and Letters

Ryan Shannon by the Dead Sea

The end of the spring semester at Notre Dame brings the start of an intense immersion experience for dozens of College of Arts and Letters undergraduates participating in the Summer Language Abroad (SLA) program.

If the past is any guide, they all return to campus with dramatically improved language skills, valuable insights into other cultures, and real-world skills they can use after graduation.

“Before I went to Amman, I had a hard time holding a conversation in Arabic,” says senior Arabic and biology major Ryan Shannon, who participated in the program last summer. “While there, all of a sudden things started making sense and clicking.”

Shannon says he learned as much during his summer in Jordan as he did during four semesters of Arabic courses in the classroom.

“The abroad experience was really important for getting fluency,” he says. “Words have a context and a meaning, and it’s something you can use, not something you just memorize.”

That’s exactly why the College and its Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures (CSLC) developed the SLA program in 2008.

“The goal of the program is to maximize the efficacy and efficiency of language study abroad through targeted preparation, instruction, and accountability,” says Lance R. Askildson, director of the CSLC and associate professor of practice, second language acquisition.

Grant recipients complete an intensive curriculum in their chosen country, coupled with real-life language use and structured opportunities for community engagement. They complete special coursework before they go to prepare and once they return to debrief. They also undergo pre- and post-testing to measure how much their skills advance.

“This rigorous program of study is unique among Notre Dame’s international programs and one of only a select few providing comprehensive and research-driven language study abroad in the nation,” Askildson says.

More importantly, he says, the program has seen significant impact in both quantitative and qualitative outcomes.

Carolyn Caballero

“It’s insane how much of a difference six weeks makes,” says senior Carolyn Caballero, who went to Siena, Italy, on an SLA grant last summer and saw her test scores—and confidence—improve dramatically.

“When I first got there, I could never get anyone to understand me,” she says. “Toward the end of my stay, I had a discussion with one of my teachers about whether altruism existed, and when I explained myself, he said ‘that made perfect sense, I get what you mean.’ I felt really proud of myself for getting that across. I felt more in control with the language itself.”

Anna Porto, a political science major who spent last summer in Paris, enhanced her French language coursework by volunteering for an organization called Libraries Without Borders and by interviewing local citizens for her senior thesis about the country’s controversial burqa ban.

It is these types of interactions, Porto says, that helped her to “learn the little idioms and expressions French people actually use and not just the ones they teach you in textbooks.”

The SLA program is open to all graduate and undergraduate students in any Arts and Letters program, whether it is one of the 14 languages the College offers or a discipline such as philosophy, economics, or music.

“Experiences like the Summer Language Abroad program are integral to a classic liberal arts education—and a key to broadening student’s intellectual and cultural horizons both now and once they enter the world of work,” says John T. McGreevy, I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters.

“Precisely because Catholicism is the world’s most multicultural and multilingual institution, we are committed to developing alumni who are cosmopolitan citizens of the world.”

As the 2011 SLA recipients spread out across the globe this summer, the College will publish a series of stories looking back on the impact the program has had on students who participated in 2010.

Learn More >