In UNC Pembroke’s new Spanish Department offices, Professor Jose Gomez was found dispensing encouragement to a student who is also from Colombia.
“You should teach your daughter Spanish,” Gomez said in a conversation that switched several times between Spanish and English. “Kids learn very fast at a young age, and a second language is a very valuable thing.”
It is Gomez’ mission to reach out to encourage the region to embrace its growing population for whom English is a second language. He is a faculty member in UNCP’s rapidly growing Spanish programs.
For Gomez, a University is the right place to begin a dialogue to build successful English as a second language (ESL) and Spanish language programs in the schools.
“A university is a great place to find common ground,” he said. “We are opening some space for dialogue to share our experiences, or lack of them,” Gomez said.
“We are behind in our local schools, but things are changing little by little,” he said. “In 2-3 years, children with limited English proficiency will shine if they are given the right tools.”
To that end, Gomez and Pam Carroll of the School of Education organized UNCP’s first annual Second Language and Minorities Symposium on September 28. Nearly 200 attended the daylong conference.
“We had about 150 pre-register, which was beyond expectations,” said Carroll, who is director of University-School Programs. “Then, about 50 more UNCP students and public school teachers registered the day of the program. It was a great day.”
“UNCP is one of the most diverse universities in America, so this is an appropriate setting for this groundbreaking meeting,” Carroll said.
There are a multitude of other cultures and languages in North Carolina, and programs like this one at UNCP are reaching out to all of them.
“A symposium like this is so important to bring people together and to let people know more about UNCP and how much we have to offer,” Gomez said. “My main interest is teaching methods, but I embrace diversity and the importance of sharing between cultures and respecting others’ traditions, beliefs and realities.”
His mission does not stop with Spanish speakers, who themselves come from a multitude of different cultures, from Mexico to South and Central America to the Caribbean and Spain.
“There are about 150 different languages spoken in North Carolina, although Spanish speakers are by far the majority,” Gomez said. “We are trying to stage many workshops for the professional development of teachers.”
“New teachers do not know enough about ESL programs and the accommodations and care needed,” he said. “From the faculty here, I want to reach out to assist ESL programs and to teach methods for teaching Spanish in the public schools.”
Thus far, Gomez has focused on Hoke County schools, and he said they have implemented effective methods for working with limited proficiency English students and for bridging the gap between schools and the families of Hispanic students. Ultimately, he will expand the support network to the entire region.
Keynote speaker for the symposium was noted scholar Dr. Carlos Ovando, who arrived in the U.S. from Nicaragua in the 1950s. He offered personal testimony to the history of ESL programs or the absence of them.
“To me, English was just noise,” he said of the “strange, cold and hostile environment” of his early school experience. “It takes about 24 months to pick up conversational or playground language.”
“It was sink or swim education and ESL was not part of the vocabulary,” Dr. Ovando said. “I had no English skills other than the ability to count to ten.”
“There was a feeling that if you did not pick up English, you were stupid. But you can be very bright in another language,” he said.
Today, Dr. Ovando is an education professor at Arizona State University and has written several books on education of non-English speakers and the politics of these programs.
“Dr. Ovando speaks from experience and speaks to the heart of this issue,” Gomez said.
Assisting UNCP with the conference were Luz Mery Ortega and Guillermo Cortes, teachers from Sampson County; Elkin Rodriguez from Robeson County and Febe McLaughling and Herbert Garcia from Hoke County.
For more information about Spanish language programs at UNCP, please contact Liliana Wendorff at 910.521.6434 or firstname.lastname@example.org.