UTPA begins Center for Bilingual Studies
Posted: 05/12/2011
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Having lived in Mexico and the United States, Sylvia Verdooren has seen firsthand the benefits and challenges of learning two languages at the same time.

The University of Texas-Pan American is forming a Center for Bilingual Studies, which will take a multi-disciplinary approach to studying the Rio Grande Valley's bilingual community. Pictured from left to right are: Dr. Glenn Martinez, professor of modern languages; Dr. Jose Ruiz-Escalante, professor of curriculum and instruction, Dr. Dahlia Guerra, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities; Dr. Hector Ochoa, dean of the College of Education; Dr. Jennifer Joy Esquierdo, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, Leonides Gomez, professor of curriculum and instruction, and Dr. Francisco Guajardo, associate professor of educational leadership. Dr. Kristin Croyle, interim dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Dr. Amy Weimer, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Anthropology, were also instrumental in the creation of the center.

Verdooren, a master's student in the education administration program at The University of Texas-Pan American and a first-grade teacher at Escandon Elementary School in Edinburg, said she has many students in her class whose primary language is Spanish and who are learning English.

"Everything I say, I say in both languages," Verdooren said.

Verdooren said it is really important for her to understand the challenges her students who are English language learners face in school and be sympathetic to their needs and apprehension in school.

"It's really hard for them to cope at the beginning, so I think the language itself, the fact that we speak their language and that we can teach them in the language (they speak) helps the student," she said.

By the end of the school year, her Spanish-dominant students have strengthened their English skills and her English-dominant students have learned some Spanish.

Recognizing the Rio Grande Valley's uniqueness of having most of its inhabitants speaking two languages, UTPA is forming the Center for Bilingual Studies to examine bilingual communities and how they are shaping the future of the country. The center awaits final approval from The University of Texas System before it becomes official.

The center is an interdisciplinary endeavor, with faculty from different colleges within the University collaborating on research and other activities to better understand bilingual families and the communities in which they live.

Deans and faculty members from some of the University's colleges developed the idea for a center to address and consolidate research they had been conducting regarding the Valley and its inhabitants, said Dr. Francisco Guajardo, associate professor of educational leadership.

While bilingual education plays an important role in the center, the center itself is not just about bilingual education. Faculty and others involved in the center will also be studying the literature, arts, politics, health care and other facets of bilingual culture, Guajardo said.

"What this is, is really a center that will study all the issues that are important for bilingual children, bilingual families, (and) bilingual communities. So that's all encompassing enough to really suggest this is a center that will study the area," he said. "In a nutshell, what we want to do with this center is have the University community be intimately engaged in community life, and we want the community outside of the University to be engaged as well in University life."

Guajardo said he and others involved in the endeavor hope the center will serve as a resource for other institutions, as well as for those creating public policy.

"We tend to not be at the table (when policy is discussed), but we want to be at the table; the way to be at the table is by knowing the community well," he said.

The center will enable the University to have research including issues regarding bilingualism, the economy, housing, health and health care available from one location, he said.

Last month, the University hosted its first conference that included participants from UTPA, local school districts and members of the community. The two-day conference included panel discussions involving educators and community members talking about their experiences in working in bilingual areas and breakout sessions where participants discussed ways to better study and serve the community.

Participants also learned about the history of bilingual education in Texas from Dr. Jose Ruiz-Escalante, UTPA professor of curriculum and instruction and president of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

Dr. Hector Ochoa, dean of UTPA's College of Education, said one of his goals since he became dean four years ago was to address and bring to the forefront issues of bilingual education.

That's why, he said, he is grateful to fellow deans and faculty members, as well as UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen, for sharing his vision in creating a center for excellence that takes a multidisciplinary approach to studying bilingualism.

"The rest of the country is beginning to look like we've been all along, if we look at the demographics," Ochoa said. "And having consulted in 19 other states, I am convinced that this (bilingual studies) is a very critical area. Many people are asking for help and need help, and very few universities have the critical mass and intellectual talent and capacity that UTPA has to help address those answers."

Read more about the center.