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College of Continuing Education News

The Language of Learning

The Language of Learning

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"I grew up loving reading," says 2010 Inter-College Program (ICP) graduate Satty Flaherty-Echeverria. "My mother was a librarian, and instilled in me the love of reading and the arts. It was an escape for me, especially after my parents divorced when I was in junior high."

A native of Mexico's Yucatan, Flaherty-Echeverria grew up surrounded by culture. She attended a fine arts school, where she studied classical dance and later danced with a company called Jazzissimo. After her parents' divorce, she went to work to help support her mother and brothers, first as a radio show producer and writer, and eventually as a teacher.

"My first job was working on a program that promoted literature and reading for young children. [Eventually] I started a program that featured, in addition to writing and literature, an arts element. [It] showcased local music, dance groups, and artists promoting their events and exhibitions."

As much as she loved the radio, Flaherty-Echeverria knew she needed a more lucrative income. At age 17, and still a student herself, she was trained as a teacher, and began teaching art, dance, and the history of dance at a Montessori school, a job she says "was a great experience that changed my life and gave me the skills and confidence to become a teacher."

After graduation, she was accepted to the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán as a Latin-American literature student in the school of Anthropological Sciences. "College in Mexico is highly competitive--only a very small percentage of applicants even get in," she explains. "Initially, I wanted to get in to study psychology, but I did not get accepted. Eventually, I decided to try a different major [Latin American literature in the school of Anthropological Sciences], and got in."

Despite taking a double course load to make up for lost time, Flaherty-Echeverria continued her work in arts and culture. "I was very involved with extra-curricular activities. I planned radio programs and broadcasted a literature-based radio show ('Voces de Papel') and talks offered by famous visiting authors. I was dancing every day with Jazzissimo."

Yet the one thing she yearned to do was to move to France and study literature and ballet. And when a friend told her about the Cordell Hull Foundation (CHF), she thought she had found her chance. (The CHF is a nonprofit organization offering programs to improve international relations, primarily through educational and cultural exchange.)

"I applied for a position teaching Spanish--I didn't know exactly where it was going to be," she says. "As it turns out, it was in the United States--Minnesota. I didn't know ANYTHING about Minnesota."

Not only was Flaherty-Echeverria unfamiliar with Minnesota, she didn't speak a word of English. Yet suddenly she found herself staying with a host family who didn't speak Spanish and getting ready to do a teaching internship at a St. Paul Spanish immersion elementary school.

"Ah, I went from being very much in my element to out of it," she smiles. "Arriving in Minnesota was a difficult experience for someone who intended to go to Paris. Obviously, being from the Yucatan, the winter weather was a struggle. But more than adjusting to the climate, I had no background in English or American culture. Pretty much as soon as I arrived, I began taking ESL classes so we could communicate."

Flaherty-Echeverria was intensely committed to her ESL studies, partly from an intellectual standpoint, but also because of her host family. "I ended up staying with them for two years, instead of the customary one. They were so very generous, opening up their home. I wanted to give something back, to contribute--and this is what I could give them. I could learn the language and get fluent as quickly as possible."

Within six months, she was fluent enough to begin auditing college classes at Hamline University. The writing and literature courses she took helped her improve her language skills and meet new people, as well as influenced her decision to finish her degree.

"A friend of mine was doing his student teaching at Adams [the immersion school where Flaherty-Echeverria was interning]. He was from the U and suggested I try taking courses as a non-degree seeking student."

She ended up committing to not just the U of M, but also to the student teacher. "As time went on, we became better and better friends, got more involved...and then we got married," she says with a laugh.

A trip to Brazil with her future husband further clarified her academic goals. "I fell in love with the Brazilian culture and the Portuguese language. I didn't speak Portuguese at the time, but I knew when I was there that I wanted to learn it; study it. Many people I've met are under the impression that the Americas are divided up into two groups of countries: Spanish speaking and English speaking. But Brazil is one of the largest countries in South America and has been a major influence on Latin American culture and literature."

Flaherty-Echeverria searched the U for a program that would allow her to combine her interests in Spanish, English, and Portuguese literature and culture with education. The ICP in the College of Continuing Education was a perfect fit.

Her degree program was intense, and she would spend her day switching between the three languages--reading, writing papers, and analyzing texts in all of them. "From my work at the immersion school and living with an English host family, I was sort of used to switching halfway through my day...but this did get confusing at times. Sometimes I would have to stop and think, 'wait--which language am I using here. I'd drop a Spanish word in a Portuguese sentence, that sort of thing."

It may have been intense, but it spurred her on. Switching between languages and cultures inspired her undergraduate research work, which was on code switching among Belizean languages. Nor did the packed schedule hamper her accomplishments: Flaherty-Echeverria was taking up to seven courses a semester (in three languages) and working in the St. Paul school district and as a translator/interpreter and still managed to earn straight As and a spot on the Dean's List.

"I couldn't have done all of it though," she says, "without the help of the scholarships I received. I was a Karin L. Larson Scholarship recipient for two years. Not only did it ease a big financial burden, I was inspired by her [Larson's] generosity and philanthropy. It has made me even more determined to give back when I have the opportunity."

Flaherty-Echeverria has received a grant to do a cultural study in Brazil this summer, in preparation for her graduate work in the fall. She will be teaching Portuguese as she works toward her Ph.D., studying the literatures and cultures of the American continents.

"I am excited to continue my studies. I may not have ended up where I first thought I would be going, but I have had such a great experience here. I was able to help my mother and siblings at home. I learned new languages. I got married. Culturally, I am much more open-minded. With more diversity, I [have gained] new and richer ways to experience life."

For more information about the Inter-College Program Satty used, and information about customizing a degree that matches your interests and your life, click on the highlighted program name above.

Click here to find out more information about the Karin L. Larson Scholarship and other scholarships available for CCE Students. Click here for scholarship application instructions and other financial aid resources.

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