For the past six years, Highlands University Spanish Professor Lillian Gorman has been taking a group of students on an adventure that is partly academic and partly an exploration of a new world.
And it’s with an intense focus on the Spanish language.
Each summer, Gorman and about a dozen students spend two weeks immersed in the Spanish language at Casa Xalteva, a small orphanage and school in Nicaragua.
Each year, the students return home with many stories and fond memories of the special time they spent there.
Gorman said Casa Xalteva was originally founded as a home for street boys, but has evolved through the years into a school for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. She said one of the ways to bring in revenue is by offering Spanish classes to foreign students.
Students are housed by a local family and spend their days studying Spanish in the classroom, taking excursions around the Spanish-speaking nation and helping out around the boys school. Since the host family doesn’t speak English, students must eat, breathe and speak the native tongue.
“The program is designed for Spanish as a Heritage learners, which are students who consider Spanish part of their background. It’s designed to give them the confidence to speak because they’re in an environment where they have to speak Spanish. They have no other choice. It’s also designed so students experience it with other students who have the same language proficiency as themselves,” Gorman said.
Gorman grew up like many girls and boys in northern New Mexico, excited about education, but never quite learning or appreciating the enormity their native language and culture play in a diverse world.
“I’m a native New Mexican, and I’m a heritage learner myself because my grandparents all spoke Spanish fluently, but it was lost in the next generations of our family. So it’s something I can relate to very personally with my students and help them understand what’s gone on in their own families. That’s what I have wanted to address, and that’s what I do at Highlands,” Gorman said.
She began taking students to Nicaragua while teaching at the University of New Mexico. But while in Washington in 2005, she struck up a conversation with a visiting provost from Highlands. They talked about the need to implement a strong Spanish Heritage course at the university in Las Vegas. She was later offered the position as the new program’s director.
“The important thing is reconnecting with the language that is part of our culture and part of our families in northern New Mexico. Becoming educated about the sociocultural, political and historical circumstance that led to the loss of Spanish, and this shift to English,” Gorman said.
Gorman, who is studying for her doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago, said many students come into her class with a confusion about why Spanish had been lost in their families, why it wasn’t spoken or why it was only spoken partially.
“I think the most important thing they can get out of the program is a sense of confidence, and a sense of pride in their culture and in their language. A motivation to continue to become fluent and then to pass it on to future generations because if there’s no inter-generational transition of the language, then we know it will die, and we definitely don’t want that to happen,” Gorman said.
Julian Duran earned his master’s degree from the School of Social Work this year, and is now working with the state Children, Youth and Families Department. He said taking Gorman’s class will help him in his work.
“All my family speaks Spanish, so I can comprehend the language, but growing up I didn’t speak it as much as I should have. This program really helped me find, refine, and get to that next level of my Spanish speaking skills,” Duran said.
Duran said being able to live among another culture and work with the children at the school was in itself a learning experience. With a wide grin, he said that he was a bit spoiled because his host family consisted of all girls.
Michaelann Cavazos, a graduate student in social work, said her first language was Spanish, but going through school, she lost a lot of it. She said this was her first trip out of the United States.
“It was a little scarry being dropped off late at night at the host family’s house, but you get up in the morning and begin talking with your family. I was really surprised at how easy it was to carry on a conversation. It wasn’t like when you hang out with your friends from here, you want to speak in English because that’s the first language you know with them, but, over there, you have to speak Spanish,” Cavazos said.
Cavazos said the hardest part of her trip was leaving the children and friends she made in a foreign land.
“For some reason, it seems like the trip becomes more intense every year. The connections the students have with their families seem to grow deeper. The families always comment that these students are different from other students they’ve had in the past, different from other foreign students, and other students from the United States. They say we are more like them, that they are able to relate with them right away — in the same way they relate to their own families. They feel a connection through the culture that these students could easily just be part of their family,” Gorman said.
Gorman’s students come from many different majors, as well as teachers and community members.
“The program serves all majors, everyone has the same goal of wanting to recover our heritage language, and revitalize our use of Spanish here in New Mexico,” Gorman said.
In the past, Spanish Heritage students had to foot the bill for the trip, but Gorman said this is the second year her program has been funded by the university.
“We’ve done this NMHU Spanish as a Heritage Nicaragua summer immersion program has had the full support of Highlands, the university provides funding for the program and makes it very affordable for our students to be able to take part,” Gorman said.