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New Spanish Website Aims to Connect Students and Their Families to Southern

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Southern’s new Spanish language website is proof that necessity is the mother of invention. With nearly 25% of Southern’s undergraduate students identifying as Latino, the time had come for a way to directly connect with this growing population.

Enter the trio of Katie De Oliveira, Esteban Garcia, and Sobeira Latorre, the driving force behind the new site. They recognized the need for Spanish-language communications on campus because they also related to it. Each brought personal experience of the first-hand challenges related to speaking Spanish as a first language.

Garcia, who is associate bursar, moved to the United States at 16 years old. When it came time to apply to college, he found himself in a labyrinth of deciphering acronyms and decrypting the complex constraints of the English language.

“My English was iffy, my parents with English were a lot iffier,” he recalled.

Adding to that challenge was his parents’ powerlessness in assisting him. The language hurdle made it difficult for them to understand what his college needs were and what steps to follow. They couldn’t help him maneuver the process that, for them, was written in a foreign language.

So, when the opportunity arose to help establish a Spanish-language website at Southern, Garcia knew he had to pay it forward.

“This is definitely a way for me to give back to my Spanish-speaking community,” he said.

While online tools like Google Translate are useful, they don’t provide the authentic support of a dedicated website. The newly launched site does.

“You get a better connection with those students,” Garcia said. “Family is very important in developing those bonds. You put names and faces that those families can reach out to, to help navigate the whole process.”

The importance of family to the Latino community factored into the site’s development. Katie De Oliveira lived the experience in a different manner than her teammates in the effort.

De Oliveira is director of the Center for Academic Success and Accessibility Services (CASAS). Before taking that position at Southern, she worked in the Midwest, providing therapy in Spanish and assisting clients who were engaged in the court system. She noticed a severe lack of Spanish-speaking support.

“I had lots of families and adults who needed to understand what was happening. That interested me in the language and how to best support families,” she recalled.

De Oliveira went on to achieve her master’s and doctoral degrees, met her Venezuelan-born husband, and through starting her family, saw the personal struggles of her spouse and in-laws related to the language barrier.

“It’s always been close to me. It’s in my everyday life,” she said.

The same could be said of Sobeira Latorre, professor of Spanish. Her doctorate in Hispanic languages and literatures and training brought her a deeper understanding of students who have a connection to Spanish.

“I am a second-language learner,” said Latorre, who is Puerto Rican and Dominican. “I came here when I was 12 years old. I understand what is like to learn a second language. Many of my students study Spanish as a second language or Spanish is their native language; some may have learned it at home from their families, so they have a connection to it.”

The connection and family bonds became the sign of something more. They signaled a need for meaningful participation in student orientation sessions. At the urging of Sal Rizza, director of the Office of Orientation, Transition and Family Engagement, Garcia and De Oliveira began offering a workshop in Spanish, to test a notion that there was a language barrier preventing attendees from engaging in orientation.

“We noticed that families would come and not fully integrate in all the different workshops we have,” Garcia said.

In 2018, De Oliveira and Garcia began offering the Spanish orientation sessions for families. “We had great attendance. We started to think of multiple workshops we could do. There were tears – parents were so happy that there are folks that speak their language,” Garcia said.

That sentiment resonates with Latorre, who didn’t know a word of English when she moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic.

“I grew up navigating the education system with a parent who didn’t speak English,” she said. Coming in to support the Spanish-language initiative, Latorre understood how important it is to inform family members of what their kids are doing – in their own language.

“They’d been working on Spanish at Southern for many years in a different capacity than me. It’s really part of my own personal history, an extension of what I do every day in the classroom,” Latorre said.

Inspired by the response to the Spanish-language orientation sessions, Garcia, De Oliveira and Latorre set out to bring their mission to life. They conducted outreach to universities to explore best practices for introducing Spanish-language events that could help connect the students and their families who needed the cultural connections and communication in their native language.

“We talked to different universities all over the country to learn best practices – California, Wisconsin. We checked all over the place. We were looking to tailor our message and culture on campus,” Garcia said.

Even with the obstacle of a global pandemic temporarily derailing its progress, the program took shape. The team dug into the geographic concerns of Spanish-language differences, from the Caribbean to South America. They found a professional translator to support the needs of tailored messages for Southern’s offices that needed information in Spanish.

The impact is evident, the three said. De Oliveira recalled a student who showed up at CASAS on the third floor of Buley Library a couple of years ago seeking support.  

When the student began speaking fluently in Spanish, the office staff were at a loss to help her. None of them spoke Spanish. But they knew that De Oliveira, who worked down the hall at CASAS, did. They connected the two of them.

That encounter fueled inspiration. But first, it helped. The student needed translation support from Spanish to English – for books, financial aid, FAFSA applications – all the needs any student faces. But for this student, the needs came with the challenge of being in a language she did not speak or fully understand.

“When she came here, we all worked together with her to support her,” De Oliveira said.

Today, that student works for CASAS. She has been instrumental in helping the team understand how it can support Spanish-language students.

“We got to see how she worked in class, how she understood Spanish. She struggled to know English and then got A’s and B’s. She worked with a literacy tutor to better understand the English language structure. In some cases, if she wouldn’t have had people that spoke Spanish or the resources, I don’t know that she would have stayed here,” De Oliveira said. “We helped.”

These connections, the team said, can support retention of students by helping them in the critical transition into college. Bringing their families into the process in a meaningful way has helped teach parents about what’s happening on campus and how to best support their children in this new part of their life.

“These are adults transitioning into college. What does that mean for their families?

This helps them stay on campus, stay in good academic standing, better understand how to get that sense of belonging,” De Oliveira said.

The Spanish website is just the beginning. Garcia said the team hopes to expand on the site by providing more resources that reinforce the connections for the students and their families.

“We want to increase the outreach we do to our Spanish-speaking community, make them comfortable becoming part of the Southern community. It starts with not just the website but with other programming. And events and workshops that are part of this initiative,” he said.

Communication has been the key to their success, Latorre said. The team recognized the need to speak the same language, but also to stay connected and share information about the students they’re helping, as well as the results they’re achieving.

“This is part of a larger effort to address the needs of this large and increasingly growing population on our campus. This is a bigger project that many of us have been engaged in for many, many years,” she said.

Latorre noted that she, Garcia, and De Oliveira also co-chair Advancing Latino/a/x/es at SCSU (ALAS). The group, which comprises members of the staff, faculty, and administration, works to promote the success of Latino students in areas such as access to higher education, retention, and timely graduation. They collaborate closely with the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

The three hope their efforts to promote inclusion and support for Spanish-speaking students and their families will send a welcoming message that there’s help for those students who need it.

“They can come to us, they can ask questions, build a rapport,” De Oliveira said.

To check out the Spanish website and get more information on resources, visit: https://www.southernct.edu/espanol.


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