Professor's immigration gave way to career devoted to language
Carlos Ovando, an ASU profefssor, has devoted his career to promoting bilingual education and English as a world language. His research, teaching and service focus on factors that contribute to academic achievement of language-minority students and ethnically diverse groups.
As a faculty member with the Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education, Ovando teaches courses in language policy; principles of second language acquisition; bilingual, ESL and multicultural education; culture and schooling. He is widely known and respected internationally, having given presentations in 15 countries outside the United States on the importance of developing and implementing innovative strategies for improving the curriculum for teaching English as foreign language.
“English has become a highly valued commodity because of globalization,” Ovando said. “There is a danger that a new class structure could develop between those who know English – the ‘haves’ – and those who don’t – the ‘have-nots.’”
He knows only too well the potential for discrimination against non-English speakers. His work is informed by first-hand experience with the academic, sociocultural and emotional issues that confront language-minority students in the United States.
A native of Nicaragua, Ovando describes himself as an “involuntary immigrant” to America. Before his parents brought him to the United States when he was 12 years old, Ovando was a self-confident pre-teen. But as an American immigrant who didn’t know the language, he struggled to keep up in school while learning English and was fearful of appearing unintelligent to his peers.
Ovando remembers an especially humiliating experience when he unknowingly broke a rule against speaking Spanish in school. The teacher overheard and promptly sent him to the principal’s office, where he received five whacks from a ping pong paddle.
“That principal’s name is forever tattooed on my subconscious,” he said.
However, it’s the memories of teachers who took a special interest in him and helped him find his path in life that drive and inspire him, particularly those of his high school Spanish teacher. Rather than being punished for speaking Spanish, in her class, Ovando won praise.
As a result of her encouragement, he earned a college scholarship and completed bachelor’s degrees in English and Spanish. After teaching high school Spanish for several years, Ovando went on to earn master’s degrees in Spanish, Latin American studies and political science, and a doctorate in curriculum, instruction and international comparative education.
He later transitioned to a career in academia, serving as a professor and administrator at the University of Southern California, University of Alaska, Oregon State University and Indiana University before joining the faculty at ASU in 2001.
“Carlos’ own life and experiences make him an invaluable inspiration to English language teacher improvement efforts,” said Kay Davis, head of the Regional English Language Office for the U.S. Embassy in Peru and a former doctoral student of Ovando. “He is the perfect example of how far a person with dual language skills can go.”
Last summer, Davis invited Ovando to deliver a keynote address at English Opens Doors, a conference that examines English language teaching initiatives. There, he emphasized the critical need for embracing the use of online resources to reform the curriculum and introduce new methods of teaching English.
“One of the things I talked about was the importance of creating curriculum that is project-based, problem-based, exciting and that respects the local cultures and intersects with new technologies,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges in teaching English as a foreign language is getting the students to want to speak English outside the classroom as well as in class.”
His efforts recently resulted in a transnational partnership that brought 10 teacher-trainers from Peru to ASU to participate in a four-week intensive English language training program that is intended to jumpstart efforts to improve English teacher training in that country. Their travel and learning experience was supported by the Fulbright Commission, the U.S. Embassy in Peru and the Peruvian Ministry of Education.
Guided by the American English and Culture Program (AECP) at ASU, the Peruvian teacher-trainers arrived at ASU on Jan. 26 to begin a rigorous professional development program that included 27 hours a week of intensive English study, divided equally among reading and writing skills, listening and speaking skills, and teacher training methodology.
The participants lived with American families during their stay and also were exposed to numerous cultural experiences. They visited the Grand Canyon, Sedona, the Heard Museum and Desert Botanical Garden; attended ASU and Phoenix Suns basketball games, a theater performance and watched the Super Bowl. They also took part in conversation clubs, a reading theater club and conversation clusters with American students at ASU.
“These types of field activities are what make our program so rich,” said Mark Rentz, director of the AECP, which has offered intensive English as a second language instruction since 1974. The program has previously provided language training for English teachers from China, France, Japan, Korea and Mexico.
“The students experience how Americans live, what our values are, what we eat and how we communicate. It’s a great extension of the classroom,” Rentz said.
For their part, the students from Peru seemed sad to leave when the program ended on Feb. 26, but were grateful for the experience. They attended a graduation luncheon the day before their departure where a few tears flowed.
“I was very surprised by people from Arizona,” said one participant, Yury Briones Torres. “My teachers and all the people I met were so kind and warm. I love all of them.”
Mary Lou Fulton Institute and Graduate School of Education