Photo by Jessica Garcia-Tejeda
When she was in graduate school in Monterrey, California, Gina Pham didn’t have much in common with the citizens of nearby Salinas, California, a city notorious for gang activity. But for two to three hours each week, Gina Pham and her peers sat in a room with Spanish-speaking Salinas citizens. They laughed and cried and bridged the gap, all through the power of language.
“We shared a lot in those sessions,” said Pham, 2012 Trinity graduate and now the program associate for the Center of International Engagement. “It was a way to really get learning outside the classroom. Obviously our Spanish improved, but it was a big impact of getting to know people who you would pass on the street and unless we were in this program together, we probably would have never said a word to [each other].”
After befriending international students when she was a student at Trinity herself, Pham said she cherished the opportunity to speak in Spanish to people she never would have talked to before. This is the goal of the new Language Partners club at Trinity.
Pham started Language Partners this semester with the help of some current students on I-Team, the orientation team for international students, to connect people who know a certain language with people who want to practice it. One of the activities at the last session was for one partner to give a description in the practice language and for the other to draw it out.
“Most people’s pictures were very on point with the originals,” Pham said. “It was a fun time because you would laugh about your errors where normally people would get embarrassed about their errors. It’s a more casual, fun, no-pressure, not-getting-graded-or-anything way to practice your language.”
Junior Rojan Shrestha is one of the I-Team members working with Pham in Language Partners. He was born in Nepal and moved to Mexico City when he was seven years old. There, he went to an international school with kids from over 50 countries, gaining a huge international awareness.
“I literally grew up in one of the most international environments one can grow up in, and I love having that as my background,” Shrestha said. “It means so much to me. Having this program is really cool because I’ve been surrounded by multiple languages spoken in one room.”
Shrestha said Language Partners provides anyone in the Trinity community with the opportunity to not only learn a new language but to broaden their cultural awareness through the partnerships themselves.
“I think what learning new languages does, it kind of opens you up to new perspectives that you weren’t expecting,” Shrestha said. “When you go on a path of trying to learn a new language, you can find so many things about not just the language itself but the culture around it, especially if you immerse yourself.”
Born in Argentina before moving to Brazil and then the United States, first-year Sol Rivas Lopes speaks Spanish, Portuguese and English, with a target language of French. She attended the first Language Partners meeting and was pleasantly surprised by the connections she made right away.
“As soon as I got there, I found somebody else that spoke Portuguese, and I was not expecting that,” Rivas Lopes said. “It was refreshing and very comforting to see that other people speak Portuguese on campus. There’s not many Brazilian or Portuguese people in San Antonio or the U.S. in general so it’s sort of a gem when you find somebody who can speak your language.”
Through activities such as question cards that generate random conversation, Pham said people are able to get out of their comfort zone. Rivas Lopes said the conversation between partners is an important part of language learning.
“It’s good to see the different accents and ways that people speak because you get used to it and it’s better because you have a more comprehensive understanding of the language too,” Rivas Lopes said. “French is not just French. There’s French from Algeria and Morocco and a lot of Central African countries that speak French, but we don’t really hear it.”
There are five more sessions of Language Partners planned for this semester and Pham said they are planning on holding five more in the spring semester.
Reflecting back on her time at Trinity, Pham remembers all the friendships she made with International students. They influenced her life in a way she wants to share with current students.
“I still talk to them to this day, and I meet them,” Pham said. “I met one of my friends in China, I met one of them in Vietnam, I can meet with them all over the world still. That is my favorite thing that I got from Trinity, and I feel like if students got a small taste of that, that’s what I hope this program can do.”