The Daily Illini

University professor connects students with those in need

Photo courtesy of Ann Abbott

By Trishala Bhagat, Staff writer

Spanish in the Community is a course at the University that integrates the Spanish speaking skills of students and connects them with service projects in the Champaign-Urbana community.

The course combines a student’s passion for learning about the Spanish language and a passion for service by providing the opportunity to spend two hours a week in the classroom and two hours a week volunteering.

Developed by Professor Ann Abbott in 2005, Spanish in the Community is a class designed to help students understand more about immigration, the myths versus the facts and the immigrant community as a whole.

Abbott has been a part of the University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese since 2000 and has taught a variety of courses including literature, Business Spanish, Spanish in the Community and Spanish and Entrepreneurship. She has a doctoral degree in Spanish Literature and has taught several types of Spanish courses.

In addition to teaching, Abbott also writes a weekly column for her hometown newspaper, the Clay County Advocate Press in Clay City, Illinois. As a writer, her purpose is to share stories and new perspectives, which has been a very powerful experience for her.

Last year, she also wrote an op-ed piece that was published in the Chicago Tribune. Following her passion for writing, Abbott is implementing a new course in fall 2019.

This course will have students look at newspapers from Latin America and Spain or newspapers in the United States that are in Spanish. Students then read pieces to learn about other countries through different op-ed writers. They will then write their own op-eds to learn a different kind of writing and thinking not typically followed in most journalism or writing courses.

Abbott previously taught conversational Spanish and felt even with new strategies, students’ skills were not advancing at a significant rate. With friends volunteering at the local refugee center, they expressed how much help recently-arrived immigrants in the community needed at the refugee center. After hearing these stories, Abbott had the idea to create the Spanish in the Community course.

She wanted her students to grow and to be challenged, and she thought this was the perfect opportunity.

“I found the niche of Spanish in Urbana-Champaign area, and I was able to help the students get connected,” Abbott said. “I wanted them to understand it is much more than what you can study with Spanish but what you can do with your Spanish.”

Many of her students volunteer at the refugee center throughout the course of the semester, which gives them more insight into the myriad of services the immigrant community needs or wants. Other students work in grade schools with bilingual education programs, where they learn Spanish, or they can work at after school programs, such as SOAR.

These opportunities enable students to create meaningful and personal connections in a unique way.

Teresa Greppi, a doctoral student working toward her doctorate in Spanish Literature and Culture, is a teacher’s assistant for the Spanish in the Community course. She believes the course not only helps the Spanish skills students already have, but it also improves their confidence when they can apply it to the real world.

“Students really benefit from this class because it forces them to figure out Spanish on their own and communicate in a real world context; it teaches them they can do it, and that there is a lot more than language involved in communication,” Greppi said.

The class takes a non-traditional approach compared to other Spanish courses offered, and students who take the class have varying experiences with the Spanish language.

Mimi Quinn, student in LAS, is currently in Abbott’s section of the Spanish in the Community course. With a class that is community-based, she said when volunteering at any one of these organizations, including schools, refugee centers or after-school programs, students are guaranteed an immersive experience in a Spanish speaking environment, as the vast majority of participants are part of the LatinX community.

“Champaign-Urbana has a large population of Latin refugees and has witnessed a surge in Guatemalan refugees,” Quinn said. “Taking this course is a great way to gain Spanish practice, specifically with native speakers, and additionally leave a positive mark on the community.”

While the prerequisites for the course are 4 semesters of Spanish or high school credit, both Abbott and Greppi hope students take the course even if they aren’t Spanish majors or minors; any student that has a familiarity of Spanish, has the curiosity for this course and wants to give back should take the class, they said.

Quinn also said everyone should take the course if they have that passion for Spanish and service, and working in the community is worth every minute.

Greppi said this type of course is invaluable to any Spanish degree. Immersing students to use the language along with the culture, she said, provides a more fulfilling and holistic approach.

The course and Abbott herself have been an inspiration to her students. As this past year’s convocation speaker, Abbott is seen as more than just a great teacher by those she affects.

Professor Abbott is a wonderful professor but an even better person,” Quinn said. “Her character shines through her warmth and non-judgmental attitude. You can see that she loves her job as a professor and also cares about the undocumented community very deeply.” 

Quinn also admires the passion Abbott has for social justice and her encouragement of the community to be more informed about issues that impact minorities.

“I really admire that she is not afraid to denounce hatred, bigotry and injustice,” Quinn said. “We need more people like her.”

Abbott’s main goal is to leave a lasting impact on her students. She wants them to be aware of headlines and read about what’s happening with immigration in the U.S.

One of the most impactful moments for Abbott was when a previous student’s opinions and presumptions about immigrants changed. 

Quinn believed there were a lot of myths about undocumented immigrants, but after volunteering at the refugee center, it has given her a new perspective that allowed her to debunk those myths with authentic experience. She said the Spanish in the Community class has left a strong impact on her, and the small contributions make enormous impacts when helping those in need — particularly in relation to language.

“Volunteering at the refugee center, I have encountered clients from Guatemala who do not speak Spanish but rather indigenous languages that are not commonly spoken in the United States,” Quinn said. “Finding people who speak uncommon languages, like those that are indigenous, is a small feat that drastically changes someone’s life. Language is our ticket to jobs, relationships, public goods, emotional expression and so many other facets of life that are vital to our physical and mental well-being.”

Quinn said through this class, she’s been able to see first-hand how language can transform someone’s life, but she has also seen it is an instrument of isolation.

With this in mind, Abbott also teaches her students about immigration authorities, one’s rights and how to protect your own rights. She goes in depth about what happens when someone gets detained, what to do, what are some of the resources and how to avoid it.

Her impact on students have lasted beyond the course; she connected current students with former students who work in Chicago through an immigration advocacy group and helped them follow their passions.

Abbott strives to provide her students with guidance in the classroom and in the future. 

“It helps students understand how important Spanish is when you actually use it and see how it helps others first hand by making a difference,” said Abbott. “It’s not just about the impact it has on students; it’s about the impact they can have on others.”

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