They come together — from different cultures and countries, with different educations and incomes — to learn each others’ languages.
Intercambio is a language exchange program in which students learning Spanish and members of the community learning English meet and converse. It’s a partnership among the Irwin W. Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning, DePaul’s department of modern languages, and several community organizations, including Centro Romero, Heartland Alliance’s Refugee & Immigrant Community Services (RIC), and Erie Neighborhood House.
But when all is said and done, participants do a lot more than enhance their foreign language skills. “Our students and the community members talk about everything — politics, racism, class divisions, social justice — and, in doing that, they get past preconceptions and prejudices: they form real relationships,” says Lourdes Sullivan, program coordinator. “Intercambio creates a comfortable space for true dialogue.”
In its strategic plan Vision 2018, DePaul committed to creating a more diverse and globally aware university community. This program is an excellent example of that commitment in action. It is modeled on the ideas of Paolo Freire (“Pedagogy of the Oppressed”) who proposed a level playing field between students and teachers so that life experiences become the source of topics for discussion. Among participants, these life experiences are shared, analyzed, and validated. Intercambio participants meet once a week for three hours; each session includes an activity, a group discussion, and one-on-one or one-on-two conversations.
“School systems typically enforce an authoritarian model and a distant, formal relationship between teacher and student,” says Sullivan.
“Under this framework, community members would automatically assume that ‘university students are above us,' not just because they’re in college but also because some of them are more affluent. But in Intercambio, no one is really the ‘teacher’ or ‘learner’: the participants are equal because they’re equally good or bad at speaking the other’s language. Also, given that the discussion topics are issues of universal interest, the community participants might even have an advantage since they’re typically older and more worldly-wise.”
Sullivan tells why Intercambio is a perfect fit for DePaul: “It is about reciprocity and social justice: students take and give, and they experience a profound realization that cultural and class barriers are false. Diversity is a social value, and we all need to do more to preserve differences — in languages, cultures, and perspectives. On top of that, if we can plant the seed of taking action on social issues, if we can help people change practices in their own worlds, we’ve succeeded.”