Language Buddies Program Bridges a Gap

Posted on February 3rd, 2012 by

Gustavus students visit the home of a Latino family in St. Peter (Photo by Molly Ashwill ’15).

Written by Brianna Furey ’15

After only a year at Gustavus Adolphus College, Assistant Professor of Spanish and Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies Program Director Angelique Dwyer has founded an influential program that is aimed at bridging the gap between the Latino community of St. Peter and the College.

“Language Buddies” is a community-based service learning program that Dwyer is developing through the Center for Servant Leadership’s new Faculty Fellow program, which aims to create meaningful community engagement opportunities for Gustavus students while addressing community needs and priorities.

Dwyer’s vision for Language Buddies is a program that will help Latino community members living in St. Peter learn English and at the same time allow students in her Spanish classes to work on their Spanish conversational skills and learn about Latino culture with face-to-face interaction as opposed to learning it from a textbook.

The idea started to come together after Dwyer and several of her Gustavus colleagues met with members of the St. Peter Latino Community in April 2011.

“In that meeting we heard from Latino community members that they wanted to learn practical things that would assist them in their daily lives such as vocabulary, how to fill out job applications, how to interact with their children’s teachers, and how to help their kids with homework,” Dwyer said.

After consulting with CSL Director Jeffrey Rathlef, and Jose Corpus from the Mankato Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dwyer’s plans started to become a reality.

The program is set up so that two Gustavus students are assigned to one Latino family with expectations that they will meet at least once a month. Program guidelines stipulate that the students and the Latino families communicate half the time in English, for the benefit of the Latino family, and half the time in Spanish, for the benefit of the students.

“After training, the students were paired with a family and told it was their responsibility to initiate contact,” Dwyer said.

About 15 Latino families are participating in the program. The families have come from many different countries, speak English at different proficiencies, and all have children.

Junior biology major Kayla Hanson said that the first meeting her and sophomore Spanish major Laura Flicek had with their Latino family was challenging, but that improved communication during their second meeting was rewarding.

“They didn’t know any English and our Spanish was shaky,” Hanson said. “But it went much better the second time we met.”

Students participating in Language Buddies take a community-based learning approach, asking how they can be of assistance to the families as they become accustomed to everyday life in a new country that speaks a different language. In the same regard, families open their homes to students, prepare their traditional dishes and share their culture.

Hanson and Flicek for example, volunteered to accompany their family to parent-teacher conferences to help with the conversation.

“They’re more comfortable speaking with us than the general Anglo community,” Hanson said.

“It’s about knowing someone cares about them in the St. Peter/Anglo community,” Flicek added.

The reason why Language Buddies is such a valuable program is because it allows for mutual enrichment between the St. Peter community and Gustavus students.

“Through Language Buddies, we get a chance to practice conversational speaking, which you don’t always get the chance to do in class,” Junior education major Natalie Green said. “It’s an opportunity to practice how to listen to native speakers and follow along. They don’t let up like a professor would if you don’t completely understand what they’re saying.”

Green also says that learning about Latino culture and how much of a struggle it was for these families to come here with minimal resources to learn English, has been a valuable experience.

While most students are establishing connections with the Latino community through Language Buddies, a few are strengthening connections that already exist. Dwyer has five Latino students in her class involved in the program who act as intercultural mediators.

“They’re the link that help students and families understand each other culturally,” Dwyer said.

Intercultural mediators include Jennifer Hernandez, Annabel Landaverde, Irma Marquez, Daniel Martin, and Roberto Peña.

“There are some cultural factors that I know that other students may not know,” Peña said. “I’m there to facilitate that and look at the best way to approach different situations that may arise.”

“I get to work with the Hispanic community and with students who have an interest in that,” said Peña, whose goal is to one day work as a community organizer for a non-profit organization.

If you are interested in participating in Language Buddies or learning more about the program, contact Dwyer at


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