Reflections on Global Learning: Why Area Studies Programs Are So Critical to Student Development
Cathy Marie Ouellette, Ph.D., Muhlenberg College
Introduction: Global Learning, Area Studies, and Student Development
Global awareness and intercultural competence as outlined by the American Association of Colleges and Universities are critical for twenty-first century challenges, and the role of higher education in shaping students’ skills and identity is more important than ever. Central to these goals is a broad grasp of the relationship of the United States to the world and vice versa; hence the urgent need for area studies programs that develop student insight into their place in the world and instill the cultural knowledge necessary for success after graduation. And yet, higher education is witnessing increasing support for pre-professional “practical” skills and study, often at the expense of programs underscoring cultural aptitude. Responding to these changes in higher education, this piece analyzes the important role of area studies in developing student versatility (breadth) and cultural knowledge (depth) in a nation where, according to the 2019 United States Census, Latinx inhabitants are the largest minority population. Area studies programs such as Latin American & Caribbean Studies are invaluable in creating avenues that underscore the global range of experiences of historically underrepresented populations. It is the contention of this piece that Latin American & Caribbean Studies augments student exposure to ethnic and racial difference, enriches student understanding of the depth and breadth of geo-cultural diversity, and prepares students to engage and work in multicultural settings.
Particularly important in this conversation is the role of area studies programs that prepare students in the United States for their role in a multicultural society that includes a significant Spanish-speaking population. Born out of an era of political and social turmoil across the United States, a first wave of area studies programs emerged in the 1970s, coinciding with the establishment of Hispanic Heritage Month in 1968. Latin American or Latino Studies programs materialized geographically according to migratory and immigration patterns, and eventually settled into minor and major area studies programs; this notwithstanding that Spanish was the first European language in the United States, and Hispanics (speakers of Spanish) represent the largest minority group in the country. Increasingly, employers seek college graduates who exhibit the essential learning goals and skills of the practical and intellectual through broad and deep study. More specifically, organizations value global learning outcomes among their employees, which include the capacity to work with people of different demographics and cultures. Thus, programs in higher education that impact the cultural competence of students are even more indispensable.
The moment to examine global learning at Muhlenberg College, a private four-year small liberal arts institution affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is ideal. A predominantly white institution whose student body draws largely from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, Muhlenberg College is situated in a valley with a substantial Latinx population; 2019 United States Census data indicate that 26% of Lehigh County identified as Hispanic or Latino. Over the past several years, Muhlenberg has worked to address student outcomes that suggest lacunae in diversity learning in curricular and co-curricular experiences. HERI data from 2008 and 2012 revealed that students of color were more likely to have interacted with students from another racial or ethnic group than white students, and graduating seniors reported fewer interactions with diverse peers (Diversity Strategic Plan 10-11). White students and students of color conveyed comparable experiences in intellectual discussions, however, not all graduating seniors achieved equal exposure to courses that advance student cultural understanding and appreciation.
In an effort to bridge these intellectual and cultural divides, Muhlenberg College approved a diversity strategic plan in 2014 that renewed its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Goals four and five encourage engagement with the diverse inhabitants and institutions of the Lehigh Valley and renew the college’s commitment to strengthening diversity in the curriculum. External funding from the Mellon Foundation supported course development to enhance diversity offerings in the form of a Human Diversity and Global Engagement requirement. One particular focus of the diversity strategic plan included faculty development and curricular revisions directly addressing student perceptions about the lack of diversity at the college. More specifically, grants supported faculty and curricular development “addressing transnational, multicultural, and global subjects of social justice and equality” (Diversity Strategic Plan 18).
Prior to this, I began drafting a proposal for a Latin American & Caribbean Studies Minor, which I proposed to the Curriculum Committee in 2012, four years after I arrived at the College. Upon conclusion of its eighth year, assessment of the program reveals the extent to which the minor is in line with Muhlenberg College’s commitment to curricular programs that privilege diverse human experiences and worldviews. This area studies program is particularly timely given the location of Muhlenberg and the United States Census projection that the Latinx population, the largest minority group in the country, will number approximately 111 million by 2060. Programs in higher education that contribute to the cultural competence of students with regard to this specific demographic are even more indispensable.
Program Structure, Assessment, & Methodology
Now in its ninth year, the Latin American & Caribbean Studies minor at Muhlenberg remains on the periphery of institutional structure. Lacking appointed faculty or allocated resources, the program depends entirely on the director— me—for advising, mentorship, and all of the associated administrative tasks, including recruitment, a necessary component given its marginal place in the curriculum. I have overseen several curriculum revisions based on the departure of eight key instructors who participated in the minor, and the addition of two new faculty members. The minor requires six total courses, including at least one advanced language course, one history survey course (Colonial or Modern Latin America), and four additional electives from the humanities, social sciences, and sustainability studies. Students can select from Spanish and French language electives, the only two languages offered from the multitude of languages spoken across the region; language acquisition in additional languages through study abroad or heritage exposure and development, is strongly encouraged. Ideally, students will take electives from at least three different disciplines, depending on available course offerings. Due to staff constraints, there is no introductory interdisciplinary course, nor a culminating capstone course, although students in the minor are welcome to take the History Capstone with me, which I teach every three years. Study abroad is not required, but is very much encouraged for students to develop proficiency and depth in their training.
Students participating in the minor complete at least two assessments on the extent to which their coursework in Latin America & the Caribbean meets the following learning goals:
- Foster a comprehensive understanding of the diverse human experience
- Instill an appreciation of the complex past and contemporary issues
- Encourage proficiency through the study of language and literature on campus and abroad
- Promote the interdisciplinary study of the histories, cultures, literatures, and language(s) across the region
Because students take one history survey course—Colonial or Modern Latin American History—they complete assessment data then, typically during the sophomore or junior year. At the conclusion of the senior year, they take a comprehensive exit survey that asks them to consider the entirety of their experience in the program. Assessment questions are aligned with the curriculum language of the Human Diversity and Global Engagement General Academic Requirement in the specific core course they are taking, which includes:
- Understand the multiple contexts (e.g., cultural, ethnic, racial, national, socioeconomic, religious, biological, etc.) that shape our constructions of human differences
- Recognize how hierarchies and disparities shape and are shaped by institutions and social relations
Additional questions reference the Human Diversity and Global Engagement guidelines that integrate the language of global learning, difference, and student development, of the specific course, which includes:
- Foster global awareness by focusing on social practices, structures, and histories of cultures and nations outside of the United States
- Explore how the construction of difference is often linked to histories and experiences of injustice in the United States and global contexts
- Offer sustained insight into the social and cultural practices of different states or regions
- Empower students with the theoretical frameworks, intellectual tools and learning experiences to critically reflect on their own participation and action in a diverse and interconnected world
In combining the expectations of the curriculum committee with the learning goals of the minor, additional questions ask students to articulate the extent to which the core course (in the sophomore or junior year) and the entire minor program (in the senior exit survey) have fostered a broad understanding of the diversity of the human experience and an appreciation of past and contemporary issues across Latin America & the Caribbean. The exit survey invites students to consider the value of interdisciplinarity, language acquisition, and diversity and difference in their learning. In both the mid-point assessment and the exit survey, students contemplate the central elements of an education centered on Latin America & the Caribbean, including: their understanding of the complexities and diversity of the human experience in this broad region; their understandings of the multiple hierarchies drawn along racial and ethnic lines; and their individual achievements in global learning, language acquisition, and cultural competency. Remaining questions are open-ended and center on individual skills acquired; challenges and surprises encountered in the content and structure of the minor; suggestions for improvement; and general comments. Approximately 5% of students did not complete the core course/ sophomore year assessment, while the exit survey is required for graduation certification.
It is well known that assessment data often raises more questions than answers. Kember and Wong, by example, trace the history of standardized assessment practices utilized for student evaluation of teaching, highlighting the embedded biases. They conclude that “imposing a model of teaching upon a questionnaire can be avoided if the items ask about learning outcomes rather than teaching. There might also be greater improvements to teaching and learning if the questionnaires were seen more as a source of feedback and less as a method of judgement” (Kember and Wong 95). The informal, non-standardized, short answer response assessments utilized here follow this method, employing “greater reliance upon the student perspective rather than the predominant researcher-driven perspective common to much of the research on this topic” (Kember and Wong 95).
The bias implicit in student evaluations of teaching suggests that even “valid” assessments are still deeply flawed. The approach utilized here, however, encourages student reflection on their specific learning experiences independent of individual instructors, and in the case of the exit survey, independent of particular courses. It follows the model outlined by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, which endorses equity-minded and culturally responsive assessment through focus on the student population, appropriate and culturally responsive language, and attention to improvement in the student learning experience (Montenegro and Jankowski 7). Assessment, which is “not an apolitical process,” must draw attention to the issues of hierarchy, power, and exclusion in the learning process, and examine “the interplay between culture, bias, power, and oppression in the assessment process” (Montenegro and Jankowski 7). This student-centered approach removes white students as the normed data pool and acts “as a mechanism that helps close opportunity, persistence, and attainment gaps between different student populations” (Montenegro and Jankowski 8).
This assessment process is designed to collect feedback on the structure of the minor and student growth and achievement of the goals outlined in the diversity strategic plan, the human diversity and global engagement perspective, and the minor. Selected quotes are representative of the collective experience of graduates of the minor, including their critiques and suggestions for improvement. Several students are quoted more than once where their expressive and evocative thoughts are representative of the larger sentiment. However, solicited input is anonymous and coded for language that correlates to the ways in which the program contributed to student intellectual, cultural, and global proficiency. In order to protect the identity of each graduate, the data and quotations are anonymized, and thus students are only identified by the year in which they completed the assessment. Of the students who have participated in the minor, 25% identify as heritage students, 40% identify as people of color, 20% identify as male and 80% as female, and 70% completed some form of study abroad. One student created a self-designed major in Latin American & Caribbean Studies. Accompanying majors range broadly, with multiple double majors in Environmental Science, History, International Studies, Public Health, and Spanish, and single numbers in Anthropology, Art, Biochemistry, Dance, Theatre, and the Education Certification Program. Assessment data for this area studies program corresponds with the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ guidelines for higher education for the twenty first century in several ways, including the achievement of global perspectives, cultural competency and language acquisition, and engagement with diversity and difference.
Outcomes: Global Perspectives & Area Studies
Assessment data from the Latin American & Caribbean Studies minor reveals student appreciation for and development of worldviews that are deeply rooted in interdisciplinary exposure to global perspectives. This is particularly important and significant, given that employers increasingly value college graduates equipped with the ability to work with diverse populations, apply expertise to real-world problems and settings, and exercise ethical judgment in their problem-solving.
Martha Nussbaum argues that global citizenship and the imaginative understanding is achieved via “carefully crafted courses in the arts and humanities, which bring students into contact with issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and crosscultural experience and understanding” (46). Securing the opportunity for global engagement, particularly at predominantly white institutions, is critical to success in the professional world. The outcomes of graduates in this area studies minor indicate that students engaged in this learning process through multiple courses within and beyond the humanities, while also developing their own worldviews on citizenship in the process.
Graduates from this program reflected on their citizenship through multiple countries and hemispheres, beginning from the perspective of learning in the United States, to adjusting to courses and sources exposing them to global perspectives about the United States in the world. They underscored their “learning about the variety of cultures and reflecting what it means for me to be a U.S. citizen when the U.S. has intervened in Latin American nations, often in destructive and detrimental manners” (Fourth Year). Along similar lines, students “learned that it is important to keep an open mind and to understand that not everyone has the same views as the United States” (Fourth Year). Yet, students were also thoughtfully reflective on the ways in which the Americas—broadly speaking—had some form of shared history. This perspective of connectivity cultivated additional growth and maturity in students’ understanding of their global citizenship. In studying regional and national histories and events, this program connected the positioning of the region to the rest of the world, teaching students “the most important skill: to look at history and contemporary issues on a micro and macro scale and draw connections between international events” (Third Year). Learning from different disciplines further ingrained the lessons of global awareness, citizenship, and student identity development. The outcomes are very much in line with research concluding that curriculum should “equip them as citizens with the drive, values, capacity to question, and ability to develop solutions in order to advance social progress” (Hurtado and DeAngelo 14).
In the spirit of student global development, outcomes unequivocally address Nussbaum’s imperative nudge toward the “concept of a link between liberal education and a deeper and more inclusive kind of citizenship” (45). This course of study led multiple students to reevaluate their positions as “global citizen[s] and consumer[s] in global commodity chains” while also “coming to terms with what [this] country has done to Latin American nations” (Fourth Year). Multiple students deliberated their own complicit behavior in perpetuating global systems of inequity and began “thinking critically about [their] participation in systems that reinforce unjust labor practices and inequality” (Third Year). The minor not only encouraged students to study and travel to a region not comprehensibly covered in the education system in the United States, but also compelled students to confront cultural unfamiliarity and personal discomfort. Recent research reveals that coursework in global learning augments students’ abilities to develop worldviews through a global lens. Ortiz and Santos found that “when students took courses that emphasized the histories and experiences of groups other than their own, they experienced dramatic learning that contributed to their multicultural competence and ethnic understanding. Even white students, who often felt discomfort in courses that focus on other-ethnic groups, realized that their worldviews changed substantially as a result” (4).
Assessment outcomes of Latin American & Caribbean Studies at Muhlenberg College identify the global emphasis through interdisciplinarity as “critical components of the program” that “broadened [student] knowledge of the region in a way that would not have been possible without interdisciplinary studies” (Fourth Year). The curriculum cultivated breadth and depth because “the interdisciplinary study of various subjects was heavily promoted and was without a doubt an integral part of this minor” (Fourth Year). This resulted in students acquiring knowledge beyond one or two disciplines and through multiple lenses and cultures, and also encouraged students to take certain risks and develop a global framework for the work they pursued. Multiple graduates ruminated on the value of this breadth, noting that their understanding of Latin America and the world broadened from these perspectives. “I don’t think I would have been driven to take courses such as these [sociology, political science, history, and Spanish] when I did if it weren’t for the minor, because they allowed me to make interdisciplinary connections. I found those connections to be interesting and pushed me to learn more” (Fourth Year). These disciplinary perspectives “and even classes in sustainability and environmental history,” intersected and complemented traditional majors, and were one of the “most rewarding aspects” of the course of study. The minor “really taught me how to think about Latin America through multiple lenses because of the various classes I took in different fields” (Fourth Year).
The program’s achievements are directly in line with support for global education that challenges parochial education and embraces interdisciplinarity, because ultimately “globalization itself is a multifaceted process” (Stearns 18). Designing opportunities for all students to learn through multiple disciplines throughout their educational experience ensures that “students can develop global competencies along multiple educational pathways: in general education, in majorreadiness courses, in professional and technical programs, and in developmental education” (Jaswal and Rush 1). Such openings also encourage students to explore the ways in which their engagement in the world informs conceptualizations of citizenship and social responsibility. As such, students can surmount provincial restrictions, challenge their own frameworks and biases, and become more self-aware. Graduates found the “most rewarding aspect [. . . ] was the fact that it was an interdisciplinary minor that allowed me to take courses in various fields of study” (Fourth Year), and they were “surprised at how much each course changed my way of thinking about their subject and how well they applied and worked with my other courses outside of the minor” (Fourth Year). Overall, the program’s dedication to tackling major issues on a global scale through connectivity of the disciplines resonated with graduates. “History, culture, and language are all interconnected” (Second Year), one student observed, while affirming a personal transformation through the depth and breadth of perspectives covered.
Outcomes: Cultural Competency & Language Acquisition
Among graduating students in the Latin American & Caribbean Studies Minor, cultural competency and language acquisition were a point of reference that promoted transformative academic experiences and rich relationships. Although study abroad is not a required component of this program, it is strongly endorsed. As such, more than two-thirds of graduating students participated in some form of study abroad—either for a semester or a few weeks—with one student doing both. These experiences are in line with NSSE data that highlight student learning and development through peer collaboration and interaction with peers from a variety of backgrounds. Language acquisition and study abroad form an important bridge to peer learning and cultural competency. Assessment outcomes indicate unanticipated openings into cultural proficiency, connections to the people and cultures of the study destination, and the ability to communicate with host communities.
Graduating students achieved cross-cultural competency in multiple forms through the minor. One student acknowledged that the program “fostered a deep understanding of the experiences of Latin American & Caribbean culture, which is useful in conversations with Spanish speakers. In addition, I studied cultures that have a tremendous presence in the United States. The knowledge of Hispanic culture and language allows me a deeper connection than most with Spanish speakers” (Third Year). The study of language prompted students to deliberately make “connections between the history of colonization to the lingering effects of it today” (Fourth Year), because the study of the past “is very applicable when talking to Spanish speakers today” (Third Year). Students reflected that “proficiency was encouraged in all things” (Fourth Year), with opportunities to compose essays in languages of the region in non-language classes that fortified the development of bilingual and cross-cultural analytical frameworks.
Achieving such cultural fluidity is in line with Nussbaum’s fundamental claim about cultivating student humanity through coursework outside of Europe and the United States. Students should “learn to inquire in more depth into at least one unfamiliar culture” and cultivate the imaginative understanding that teaches, “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself” (Nussbaum 46). Moreover, “the foundations of our society and our democratic government require us to be able to talk respectfully with people who hold different opinions and have different backgrounds than we do […] We need to nurture students’ capabilities to see the world from many different perspectives” (Haring-Smith 8-9). One student who traveled to two Spanish-speaking countries expressed sentiments embedded in the assessment outcomes of graduating students with regard to citizenship and diverse worldviews. Through study abroad, “I reflected critically on my citizenship and privilege” through the comparative study of class and race inequalities in health care in each country: “I cannot fully express what an impact my studies abroad have had on my ambitions for the future and changed the framework that I approach academics with” (Fourth Year).
The intersection of classroom and first-hand experiences abroad resulted in personal and professional transformations for all students who studied away. For one student, the experience “helped me accomplish my academic goals in that I was able to examine the history of the region from a different vantage point after having studied religious and ethnic diversity. I was able to improve my ability to speak Spanish. . .The experience helped broaden my horizons” (Fourth Year). Studying abroad was often an unanticipated, unplanned event for students, but they found the experience educational and transformative. “Going to Cuba was an incredible opportunity that allowed me to learn about various communities in and outside of the classroom. This trip meant so much to me because I was able to connect with my host family and relate to some of their everyday struggles” (Fourth Year).
One student summarized that the minor “promoted opportunities for me to study abroad and engage with other cultures and…fostered my exploration of courses I would not have thought to take otherwise (and that I ended up enjoying immensely)” (Fourth Year.) One of the most significant qualities of the minor program was “being provided the opportunity to engage directly with my course of study by traveling abroad” (Fourth Year). The experience of living abroad propelled students “to engage in questions of racial and ethnic hierarchies head on” (Fourth Year). In addition, study abroad programs that incorporated self-designed research projects further inspired students to pursue academic interests in languages other than English.
Even students who did not study abroad revealed deep engagement with Latin American & Caribbean history, culture, and other disciplinary areas through the minor. Course materials reinforced the study of language, topics, and literature to a “significant” degree, according to assessment, which resulted in cultural proficiency outside of and within the United States. Several heritage Spanish speakers affirmed a connection they felt with their culture, while non-heritage students remarked on their achievements in conversational and content-based understanding with other Spanish speakers: “I fostered a sense of similarity and connection with Spanish speakers. I was able to relate to Spanish speakers through our shared knowledge of Hispanic culture and language learned in the classes” (Third Year). These skills, accompanied by the program’s emphasis on global perspectives and diversity and difference, further contributed to student development and understanding of place in the world.
Outcomes: Diversity & Difference
One of the most valuable aspects of an area studies program that develops the breadth and depth of global perspectives in students is the accompanying appreciation of diversity and difference. Meacham argues that “students should understand how gender, race, ethnicity, class, and religion affect those who are different from themselves, but they should also understand how these forces affect them” (3). Additionally, exposure to challenging and controversial themes and topics results in students who are more likely to report positive civic-related outcomes (Hurtado and DeAngelo). Jaswal and Rush support global education for “all students at all levels of education,” in order to “create diverse, ethical, and compassionate leadership that will define our world’s future course” (emphasis in original 1-2). To that end, this program directly addresses the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ commitment to privileging diverse human experiences and worldviews, encouraging citizenship locally and abroad, and fostering inclusivity. It simultaneously enhances student understanding of global citizenship and promotes cultural competence.
Exit assessment data collected from graduating students indicates that courses in Latin American & Caribbean Studies challenged student assumptions about the region and its inhabitants, prepared them for an understanding of contemporary issues, and taught them an appreciation for the diversity and range of individual experiences. Most significant was student recognition of the overwhelming breadth embedded within the program, and the ways in which diversity affects every aspect of life—social, environmental, familial, political, professional, and so on—in the region. Students reflected on the intentionality of course materials, especially primary accounts of the human experience, that led them to contemplate the intricacies of the region in multiple ways. They cogitated how colonialism transformed the lives of common people as they struggled “to form and maintain unique identities that were distinct from their conquerors” (Fourth Year). Furthermore, “readings of personal accounts … fostered a personal human perspective of the region, illustrated emotional and historical depth [and] fostered an understanding of complex and often intertwined issues” (Second Year). Multiple courses across the academic divisions “greatly expanded my knowledge and understanding of the subject matter [and] also fostered a great appreciation for the intricacies of the region’s complex past and a fascination with the more contemporary issues affecting the area today” (Third Year).
When prompted with an inquiry into the ways in which the minor’s emphasis on race and ethnicity engendered an appreciation for diversity, students revealed that “through critical reading, class discussions, and analytical writing, the minor solidified [their] understanding and appreciation of the complexities of the region in regard to race and ethnicity” (Fourth Year). Graduates echoed these sentiments: “I had very little, if any comprehension of the subject prior to joining the program. During my course of study in the minor, I learned the core distinctions between the terms and how they related to the study of the region” (Fourth Year). The curriculum “pushed me to think seriously about the complexities and the different understandings of race and ethnicity within different countries and groups of people” (Fourth Year). It further enhanced their understanding of the formation of “unique identities” and “created a deeper understanding” of the diversity of race and ethnicity across the region, as one student summarized: “I gained an appreciation for the economic, political and social processes that go into defining race beyond ascribed physical characteristics and what it really means for a race to be socially constructed,” adding that the national and regional differences were “surprising” (Fourth Year). Course material complicated previous impressions of the region, as graduates articulated:
The minor prepared me well and challenged me to critically engage in issues of race and ethnicity. Because of the vast complexities of race and ethnicity in Latin America & the Caribbean, I was able to study these factors without generalizing or coming to a simple conclusion. I found that this minor really challenged and changed my preconceived notions of race and ethnicity. (Fourth Year).
The consistent challenge for students was “approaching and talking about issues of race and ethnicity eloquently and encouraging others to view these issues open mindedly” (Fourth Year). The process was enhanced by the “vastly different courses” in different disciplines that intentionally promoted the “most important skill” of discussing race, class, and ethnicity “properly” and with maturity (Fourth Year).
Key themes of colonialism, oppression, power, and social and racial hierarchies further complicated the course of study and resonated with students, who gained “insight into the human experience” (Fourth Year). Students reflected on the ways in which their classes deliberately required them to engage with power and oppression “head on,” especially “through concepts such as the existing relationships between natures of the core and periphery, interactions between conquerors and the conquered, and so on” (Fourth Year). The diversity of difference underscored intricate distinctions between the individual and the nation, where “skin, heritage, and socioeconomic status are all combined to develop identity, which can vary from regions” (Fourth Year). In addition to unpacking the complexities of race, course discussions and materials “demonstrated that several of the issues (i.e. oppression, hierarchical systems) persist in the contemporary world” (Second Year). One student concluded, “I know that there is still more for me to learn about in regards to Latin America & the Caribbean, as well as understanding race & ethnicity within these areas, but I know that I’m leaving Muhlenberg with a stronger foundation than when I started” (Fourth Year).
In spite of the previously mentioned accomplishments in the minor and American Association of Colleges and Universities’ data supporting these initiatives, Latin American & Caribbean Studies remains a peripheral program at Muhlenberg College, with no faculty appointed to the program, no interdisciplinary introductory course, and no capstone experience. Many students lamented this marginality, noting that the thematic, linguistic, historical, and geographical diversity of the region cannot be adequately covered in six separate classes. One of their consistent grievances was the lack of course elective offerings each semester, both in terms of low numbers of offerings and in scheduling conflicts given the small number of electives. Graduates articulated that they “would like to see more consistency with the available courses offered each semester. Often times, there was very little to choose from” (Fourth Year). Students noted that they genuinely had to plan ahead due to the lack of consistency in course rotation and the few electives available. They recognized the limitations of their instructors in terms of expanding course offerings, and suggested institutional changes in supporting the program. “There were often not enough resources and not enough classes per semester… Hopefully, Muhlenberg will recognize the importance of this minor and help it expand more” (Fourth Year). They also noted that the minor isn’t publicized on the college website, at admissions events, and on campus in general.
I would recommend advertising the minor more. Many people I have spoken to are not aware that it is a minor, which is unfortunate because it has been a central part of my education at Muhlenberg. I think several students who end up minoring in other areas such as Spanish or history would benefit from exploring the possibilities of a LACS [Latin American & Caribbean Studies] minor because of the wide array of classes and experiences in it. (Fourth Year)
Lastly, graduates expressed their hope that the program “could become a Major someday, so that there can be more courses focused on specific countries or major events that changed Latin America and the Caribbean” (Fourth Year).
Area studies programs have historically played decisive roles in the formation of student identity and their worldviews; hence the urgent need for area studies programs that educate students about their global citizenship, expose them to the historical threads of complex and uneven cultural exchanges, and encourage intellectual agility. Latin American & Caribbean Studies programs offer consistent and meaningful opportunities to engage deeply with diversity. And although not aimed exclusively toward engagement with ethnic/racial diversity on campus or measuring positive outcomes for minority students, this program has contributed to the development of “diversity-related skills” as outlined in Muhlenberg College’s diversity strategic plan. Area studies programs such as Latin American & Caribbean Studies are invaluable in creating interdisciplinary avenues that capture the extensive scope of experiences of historically underrepresented populations, and have a profound impact on student learning in the present and the future. Together, intentional curriculum design develops global awareness, engenders cultural competency, and encourages student understanding of diversity outside of and in relation to the United States. It simultaneously addresses Nussbaum’s concern that “because America is so dominant, it is easy for Americans to go through life in a bubble of American-ness, speaking English and rarely venturing out of the secure setting of American culture, even when we travel” (44).
Prioritizing programs that are intentionally inclusive will improve campus climate, address student concerns about the lack of resources and course offerings, and support student desires for “more opportunities for engaging with the larger campus about the issues we talked about in class” (Fourth Year). The peripheral location of area studies may be “because [they] cannot be located unequivocally in any one discipline or university teaching and research structure” (Allatson 1), despite evidence affirming the positive learning outcomes of area studies. However, research demonstrates that “when colleges and universities invest resources in creating programs such as cross-cultural centers, ethnic studies programs, minority faculty and staff associations, gender equity initiatives, and campus-wide diversity and inclusion awards, they are demonstrating the high premium they place on inclusion and excellence” (Muñoz and Murphy 3). Purposeful commitment to and growth of area studies programs will also allow for additional research on student outcomes. The information provided in student exit surveys suggests two general trends depending on exposure to culture and language prior to entering college. In general, Latinx students acknowledged a proximity to aspects of their cultural heritage, while English-language speakers affirmed that course material and language study opened up anticipated doors. For Latinx students, “the most rewarding aspects of following this course of study were learning more about my heritage and also learning more about Latin America in general” (Fourth Year).
Exit assessment data from graduating students in the Latin American & Caribbean Studies Minor is overwhelmingly positive. Students expressed gratitude for the coursework, the unanticipated surprises of interdisciplinary and global classes, the experiences of learning abroad, and the individualized treatment each advisee received from the program advisor. In addition, students complimented the writing and reading skills taught throughout the experience, which helped prepare them for graduate programs and professional lives. Accrued evidence suggests that such environments are important instruments for learning, and that faculty who teach in diversity-related programs serve in powerful, and inspirational, roles where diversity is a central component of educational development. An institutional commitment to this program will allow for continued student success in the areas outlined here, and aptly arm students with the level of preparation and skills required for success in culturally diverse environments, and a globalized world.
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