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A strong support system for bilingual students

Heritage program enables bilingual ASU students to explore Hispanic roots, succeed academically

man seated at a desk in an empty classroom

October 15, 2019

College wasn’t even on Sergio Loza’s radar when a recruiter came to visit his high school in the mostly Latino, low-income neighborhood of Maryvale in Phoenix during his senior year.

“It's not like my parents didn't want me to go to college,” he said. “They were always supportive and gave me everything they were able to give me.” However, being immigrants who never attended college themselves, they had no knowledge of the process and what it required.

But when the recruiter asked Loza what he wanted to be, he said a doctor.

A skater kid who loved music and playing classical guitar, Loza had recently suffered a hand injury in a car accident that robbed him of his dexterity and made playing difficult. With that incident fresh in his mind, becoming a doctor seemed as good an idea as any.

Today, he is a doctor, though not in the medical sense. Loza recently obtained his PhD in heritage language pedagogy and sociolinguistics from Arizona State University. This month, he began work as an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, where he also will direct the Spanish heritage language program.

The same type of program exists at ASU — the School of International Letters and Cultures’ Spanish heritage language program — and it’s what Loza credits for much of his academic success. At only 28, he is the first graduate of the programThe school launched it in 2015 to better accommodate the needs of bilingual students. to be offered a tenure track position at a four-year institution. 

“It was eye-opening because I was surrounded by people who looked like me, who spoke like me, who had the same background as me,” Loza said.

The program made the first-generation college student feel at home in an unfamiliar place, gave him a support system and encouraged him to explore his bilingual identity and Hispanic roots.

In the five years since it was first introduced, enrollment in the program has doubled and new offerings, including online courses, have been added.

“One of the key features of this program is the opportunities students have to apply their knowledge in their local communities, either through service-learning opportunities or through applied projects that focus on helping students become aware and solve issues or problems related to Latino communities,” said Sara Beaudrie, associate professor and head of the program.

Beaudrie also served as Loza’s dissertation director.

“The most impressive fact about Sergio is his truly remarkable progress, which provides evidence of the fact that great futures can be forged when students are given access to education and the support they need to succeed,” she said. “His success speaks highly about the importance of ASU’s mission of access and inclusion and its impact to change futures.”

But Loza isn’t the only student to come out of the Spanish heritage language program swinging. Justice studies master’s degree student Azucena Martinez, another first-generation student, graduated in May 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minors in political science and Spanish. When she completes her master’s degree, she plans to enroll in law school and study human rights and criminal law.

Martinez said her experience in the program is the reason she chose that career path. A native of Yuma, Arizona, where she said Mexican American culture is so predominant that she spoke Spanish every day, Martinez noticed after coming to the Phoenix area to attend ASU at the age of 18 that she had gone entire weeks without speaking Spanish.

“I started to really miss home,” she said. “I became homesick for Mexican culture.”

When Martinez heard about the program, she thought it would be a good way to get her language requirements out of the way.

“But the more I participated in class and got to know the professors and students, the more I began to appreciate my own unique identity,” she said.

If her first realization upon moving to Phoenix was how much pride she had in her Mexican American background, her second was how unjust the legal system could be to her community.

“It was very common for my peers or family members to have run-ins with the law in Yuma,” Martinez said. “It wasn’t until becoming more educated about my own culture that I realized that’s not normal, that communities like mine are unfairly targeted and are suffering because of that. Now I can go back and help them better themselves.”

Loza wants to give back to his community, too. After changing his degree track from medicine to linguistics, he began to focus on the social implications of language, exposing power and inequity inherent in language biases.

One way language bias appears in society is in standard language teaching practices.

“We have the concept of standard Spanish,” Loza said. “But it's not a neutral idea. A standard is just a dialect that's preferred over others, and it usually reflects a specific community, a specific demographic, that draws privilege from that preference.

“And it's not just a Spanish thing, there's language discrimination in English as well. Standard English discriminates against dialects like African American English and Appalachian English, too.”

To demonstrate this, he conducted a study on standard Spanish language teaching practices for his dissertation at local community colleges. He found that instructors did indeed correct students who had learned Spanish at home for using colloquial phrases that standards considered incorrect but which were perfectly acceptable in everyday conversation.

Being chided for improper language when it’s how you’ve spoken your whole life can leave a bad taste in students’ mouths that sometimes results in them dropping the class altogether. And Loza knows all too well the misfortune of losing your first language.

He remembers when as a young elementary student, English-only laws were put in place in schools. Spanish had been his first language, but after it was taken out of the classroom, his skills in the language began to deteriorate.

“In a way, I was robbed of the opportunity to develop my literacy skills in Spanish,” he said. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just tweeted about how difficult it is being a Spanish speaker in the U.S. because you often feel like you're not good enough, so your bilingualism is kind of placed in this tug of war between the two cultures.”

When Loza finally took Spanish again in school, he said he felt like a “pocho,” a derogatory term for Latinos who lack fluency in Spanish because they’ve been taught to favor English. He doesn’t want anyone to have to feel that way anymore, and he believes what he learned in his dissertation study is a great place to start designing resources and workshops for language teachers to help them better understand the communities they serve.

Not to be overlooked is the sense of the camaraderie the Spanish heritage language program fosters — and not just among students but between students and professors.

“A lot of the professors came from the same places and experiences we did, so they understood the struggles we were going through,” Martinez said. “It didn’t feel like just another class, it felt like a cohort.”

Spanish instructor and assistant coordinator of the program Melissa Negron, who has been teaching courses in the program for about four years, hails from Puerto Rico, so she said, “I have some familiarity with being between two worlds. I grew up with both English and Spanish, and it’s a complicated situation.”

If it weren’t for the mentorship and guidance of Beaudrie, Loza said, he might not have stuck around in the program long enough to find his passion. Now he’s excited to continue his sociolinguistic research at the University of Oregon.

“I’m really fortunate because at the University of Oregon, their whole curriculum in their heritage program is oriented toward what I’ve been researching here at ASU,” he said. “I really feel like the School of International Letters and Cultures has provided me with all the necessary tools to succeed there.”

Top photo: Sergio Loza is an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, where he also directs the Spanish heritage language program. He credits the School of International Letters and Cultures’ Spanish heritage language program with his academic success. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now