“Learning, at times, can be an uncomfortable experience, because it pushes us to question the ideas and values we take for granted.”
As a Latin Americanist, Martha Ojeda has found her classroom discussions can sometimes veer toward delicate or controversial issues, such as U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. But she believes it is her responsibility to challenge preconceived notions and encourage students to think about their own cultural traditions and worldview and what influenced their beliefs.
To ensure that students are exposed to multiple perspectives, she invites local and internationally known speakers into her classroom and shows documentaries on a variety of topics. “Students appreciate objective presentations that evaluate supporting and opposing arguments of a particular issue.”
In her beginning and intermediate language classes, Ojeda tries to create a “low-anxiety classroom atmosphere” while challenging students to perform to the best of their abilities. As a non-native English speaker, Ojeda remembers when she was first introduced to English in high school and how words sounded “magical and beautiful.” She wants her students to enjoy learning languages as much as she enjoyed learning English.
Ojeda also knows that introducing students to individuals in the local Latino community can influence their understanding of other cultures. She encourages students to participate in internships with local organizations or volunteer in organizations that serve the Latino population.
This face-to-face connection is vital to a student’s understanding of the decisions other individuals make. “I remember one first-year student who was dreading having to take more Spanish classes at the college level. Then she decided to major in Spanish. As a result of her experience teaching English as a second language, not only did her spoken Spanish improve greatly but she also became very sympathetic to the concerns of migrant workers. As she confessed to me, she understood ‘why they are here,’ whereas before she had ‘discriminated against them.’”
When Ojeda developed a course for the first-year seminar program titled Latinos: One or Many Cultures, she learned more about the various perspectives students bring to campus.
“I was particularly touched by the writings of two of my students of Latino background who were able to reflect on their sense of alienation living in a culture and a country that reminded them of their difference. It was equally touching to read the experiences of my Anglo students who reflected on how their perceptions of ‘others’ had been formed. I learned so much from my students’ sense of empathy and compassion, especially when we read the testimonies of the undocumented migrant workers.”