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Perfecting a romantic language

Perfecting a Romantic Language
Undergraduates look out over the city of Bilbao during USC Dornsife's Valencia Summer Program last June.

Inside a Taper Hall classroom, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences senior Bridget McDonald chatted with classmates, effortlessly transitioning from English to Spanish.

The Pasadena native’s confidence faltered, however, when native Spanish speakers struck up a conversation with her.

That was before she spent a month in Spain.

“I can’t emphasize how dramatically better my Spanish-speaking skills became,” said McDonald, who is majoring in environmental studies with a minor in Spanish. “Being immersed in a culture requires you to muster the confidence to speak the language and forces you to speak it all the time.”

McDonald was among 10 USC students who traveled to Valencia, Spain, as part of USC Dornsife’s first Valencia Summer Program. Leaving late last June, students relied on their Spanish-speaking skills the second their airplane touched down in the country’s third largest city.

“It is always intimidating to speak to people who are fluent, but if you have no choice, you do it,” said Kelsey Wang, a USC Dornsife senior majoring in biology with a double minor in art history and Spanish. “Now I don’t feel uncomfortable attempting to say things even if they’re not entirely grammatically correct.”

Complete immersion in a new culture was one aim of the program designed by Marianna Chodorowska-Pilch, assistant professor of Spanish. The program was a four-week interdisciplinary course that gave students a chance to improve their Spanish proficiency while providing a deeper understanding of immigration in Spain.

Offered by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and the School of International Relations, in partnership with faculty from the University of Valencia, students probed different aspects of immigration through lectures and trips. The course gave them four credits.

“I always believed a course in Valencia would be an eye-opening experience for USC students because I am familiar with immigration in Spain,” Chodorowska-Pilch said. “Students learn how immigrants are perceived in Europe and how the same problem in the United States is being dealt with in Spain.”

Although Valencia has a population of more than 800,000, the city has the feel of a community, an ideal setting for students to mingle with residents. The low tourist numbers meant fewer opportunities to speak English.

The program will be held again this summer. In addition to students studying Spanish and international relations, those interested in sociology and psychology or other fields may opt to take the course, Chodorowska-Pilch said. It is open to all USC undergraduate and graduate students who have intermediate Spanish skills.

Applications for the June 16 to July 14 trip will be accepted starting on Jan. 16.

While touring Valencia last summer, students discovered the beauty of Spain in trips led by Chodorowska-Pilch. They embraced the country’s culture and rush-free way of life, strolled along cobblestone streets and enjoyed the traditional, leisurely meals that span three to four hours. Among other things, they marveled at exhibitions in Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and enjoyed a day at Albufera, a natural saltwater lagoon and estuary on the Gulf of Valencia.

“Marianna was amazing,” Wang said. “She knows the city and went out of her way to expose us to everything that would help us get the most out of the trip.”

One memorable weekend was spent soaking in the culture of northern Spain with trips to San Sebastian and Bilbao. The group dined as northerners do – standing up and snacking on pintxos, the Basque word for tapas.

Back from Spain, McDonald said the program did more than fulfill her desire to travel abroad.

“It allowed me to gain confidence in my Spanish-speaking skills,” said McDonald, who wants to eventually practice environmental law in Latin America. “I plan on traveling a lot, and I now have a newfound appreciation for other societies and cultures. I now have the confidence to delve into a new culture and know I can acclimate.”

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