When the COVID-19 pandemic swept crowds out of subway tunnels and airports, it also issued a significant challenge for the Lauder Institute: how to immerse students in a rich language-learning environment.
The Lauder Institute of Management & International Studies, a joint-degree program between the School of Arts & Sciences and the Wharton School, offers a unique advanced language studies component that normally includes a summer immersion. Students, upon starting their two-year program toward an MBA and an international studies MA, almost immediately embark on travel for immersions a significant segment of which focuses on language and culture in Regional Programs. A student in the Latin America Spanish Program, for example, might spend the summer in Argentina.
As the pandemic has continued to produce restrictions and safety concerns, immersion travel has not been possible. But modern technology has allowed the program to rethink what qualifies as immersion.
“Because we couldn’t travel, our goal was to develop an immersive environment to our program in spite of the pandemic limitations. The idea and spirit of [the language projects] was to connect with communities and to have a virtual immersion experience,” explains Mili Lozada, director of the Language and Culture Faculty at the Lauder Institute.
Students were asked to engage with organizations related to their language area and to develop a community-oriented, team-based project. This summer outreach project intended to connect students to observed needs in the Philadelphia area and abroad. One group of the Spanish-speaking Lauder students worked with the Consulate of Mexico in Philadelphia to survey immigrants’ knowledge of finance and economics; Hindi-speaking students, meanwhile, worked with a music academy in Delhi to explore the business as well as sociocultural trends of western music in India.
“We developed this project so that students could actually connect with community organizations, NGOs, universities, and others to develop projects that met that organization’s needs and engaging, of course, the students’ backgrounds in language, culture, technology, and business,” Mili Lozada says. “This started in 2020 because of the pandemic, and it’s interesting how the pandemic allowed us to create a meaningful learning experience to our students without travel.”
Angela Huang began her experience with the Lauder Institute in June and is continuing her advanced Chinese language education. She saw the project as an opportunity to make connections with the broader Philadelphia community through language and step out of her comfort zone at Penn.
“I admire our administration and faculty for wanting us to have a chance to get to know this new city and community we all moved to, because I think few of us had lived in Philly before and it was a way to start understanding the broader challenges being faced by these communities in Philadelphia,” Huang says of the project experience.
She and her partner, Matt Griffith, decided to work with a local Chinese language school, Guanghua Chinese School, in Blue Bell, Montgomery County. During the early days of the pandemic, Huang says, the organization raised funds to purchase PPE for their community and developed translation centers for COVID-19 testing sites. They also wrote community service newsletters in Chinese and published them on Weixin, a popular Chinese social media platform. However, they wanted these articles to also reach English-speaking communities and build connections between the Chinese-American community and the rest of Philadelphia.
To help, Huang and Griffith translated articles into English and synthesized them into a single article that they’re now trying to find a publication for. She says she gained not only newfound respect for the work of translators but learned from the efforts of the school she worked with.
“It’s easy to think that everyone is very divided—especially with social media—now more than ever, but when it comes to times of crises like this, it was really amazing to see how much the community banded together,” Huang says.
Alexander Robinson, a Lauder student from Atlanta, worked remotely with the University São Paulo, in southern Brazil, to bridge the communication gap between its recently established eastern campus and the underserved communities that it neighbors. That new campus was designed to foster a relationship with the neighboring community, he says, and one specific outreach effort the university is making is to teach community members about nutrition.
Robinson, who spent time in Brazil for a gap-year program at Princeton, speaks Portuguese, and is a yoga instructor, was excited by the idea.
“I was thrilled because it not only resonated with my personal experience and journey of well-being, but it reminded me of that bridge year I did in Brazil with underserved communities through Princeton but in a very different context of Southern Brazil instead of Northeast Brazil,” Robinson explains. “I’d say that connects, in some ways, to what I want to do post-grad, because I’m interested in going into food and beverage marketing.”
“It was challenging being divorced from the local context,” he adds of the experience. “And having to dredge up memories from eight years ago in Brazil, in a different location. And it was a funny exercise in translating our contexts in Philly and assumptions we make about what people know and have access to—through Zoom—to an environment that is so very different.”
Ultimately, he was able to create pamphlets and a promotional video that explain the basics of exercise.
“It’s funny to speak about immersion when you’re in another country, but I do think it helped me learn more about a part of Brazil I had never been to, even though I didn’t leave Philly,” Robinson says. “This was a very different community and context than I had ever experienced.”
Huang and Robinson both expressed appreciation for the self-driven nature of the projects, and the emphasis on finding cross-cultural communication even from home in Philadelphia. Robinson said it also reframed his idea of immersion.
“I didn’t expect to go to business school and be thrown into a community-service project, but I’m really glad the Lauder Institute did that,” he says. “And that it’s clearly a value of the Institute to serve other people, and there’s a higher purpose to our language classes and cultural immersion that isn’t just self-serving—‘What am I getting out of the immersion experience?’”
In the future, regardless of when the immersion travel resumes, Mili Lozada imagines including the community engagement component with the language education.
“As an educator, one of the big things you want is to create an environment where students can learn independently, and at the same time in a meaningful way,” says Mili Lozada. “Students were able to navigate different environments dealing with different issues and reflect on the learning from that perspective. And so, I think that’s a unique opportunity of engagement outside the classroom: allow students to face real issues, act on them, and to develop language and cultural awareness, and I think it’s been an interesting way to do so.”