Forging Global Perspectives

Grant expands opportunities for Spanish and communication majors

Building bridges to the wider world: Rafaela Fiore Urizar, PhD and Ryan Medders, PhD. Photo: California Lutheran University

American Express. Coca-Cola. FedEx. These are just a few of the prominent multinational corporations striving to meet the manifold needs of their Latinx employees.

According to the most recent U.S. Census, nearly 20% of the American population identifies as Latinx or Hispanic. California boasts more than 10 million residents who deem Spanish their primary language, which they speak at home or on the job. These statistics and the fact that nearly 40% of California Lutheran University’s student body is Hispanic serve as compelling reasons for the College of Arts and Sciences to expand its coursework in Spanish. 

Interdisciplinary collaborations focus on academic and professional needs

This fall, the College received a grant totaling $159,692 from the Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Program of the U.S. Department of Education for a project entitled, “Embracing Spanish for the Professions at Home and Abroad” (ESPHA). This is the first time Cal Lutheran has received this kind of grant from the Department of Education.

One of the project’s Co-Principal Investigators Rafaela Fiore Urizar, PhD, says ESPHA will run from 2022-2024. Dr. Fiore Urizar chairs the university’s Department of Languages and Cultures and teaches Spanish and Latin American Studies. She and her colleague, Ryan Medders, PhD, proposed the project to the Department of Education with an overarching goal.

“The departments of Languages and Cultures and Communication submitted the project in May 2022 to improve undergraduate instruction in international studies and foreign languages with a primary focus on our students’ vocational interests,” Fiore Urizar said.

These areas span teaching, business, health, and Spanish-language media in the U.S. and abroad.

Both departments previously collaborated to launch the Spanish Media minor in fall of 2021, aligning with Cal Lutheran's Hispanic-Serving Institution designation. The minor allows heritage and fluent speakers to advance their skillsets in communication and develop a greater understanding of the language and its myriad cultural facets. Students learn how to apply these and other analytical concepts to how the news media and greater society function.

“Our mission is to educate students to be leaders in a global society,” Medders said. He adds ESPHA will pursue three objectives to enhance undergraduate instruction, including:

  • Improving instruction in interdisciplinary courses in both of the Languages and Cultures and Communication departments
  • Providing culturally inclusive, affordable, accessible language materials and proficiency testing for students, staff, and faculty
  • Offering educational and cultural events that further prepare students for civic engagement and diversity in their future workplaces

“Increasing affordable course offerings and study abroad, and improving international and language education at Cal Lutheran, is particularly needed given that 56% of our undergraduate population identifies as students of color, more than 35% are recipients of Pell Grants recipients, and approximately 40% are first-generation college students,” Fiore Urizar emphasized. 

Research shows students from one of these backgrounds have limited access to international and language education opportunities.

Cal Lutheran’s own data underscores this research. Data from its Office of Educational Effectiveness and Institutional Research shows 39% of the student population is Hispanic, yet only 7.18% of students traveling abroad identify as Hispanic. Data also shows Black/African American students constitute 4% of Cal Lutheran’s student body, but only 2.45% study abroad.

Personal interactions, overseas or on campus

Students can currently enroll in the university’s Global Studies program or study on one of six continents through the Office of Education Abroad. Yet through ESPHA, the Languages and Cultures and Communication departments will provide novel opportunities to students enrolled in these majors. 

“Through interdisciplinary learning and international travel, students will greatly improve their overall understanding of classroom materials through first-hand experiences,” Fiore Urizar noted.

One existing course in the Languages and Cultures Department, SPAN 350, Race and Ethnicity in Latin America, will include a chance to study in South America in the next academic year as will a new class in Spanish Language Media, COMM 485.

“The Race and Ethnicity course will have a travel component to Colombia and will run in fall 2023 with the travel portion in January 2024. The Spanish Language Media course will have a travel component to Argentina; it will run in spring 2024 with the travel portion in May that year,” she said.

Additionally, the project will allow Cal Lutheran students to attend educational workshops, including a “Teaching a Foreign Language Workshop” and a “Spanish Language Media Workshop.” For the former, which targets aspiring primary and secondary school teachers in California, the College of Arts and Sciences will partner with the university’s Graduate School of Education and the Title V EDU|CAL program, which seeks to increase diversity among K-12 teachers. 

Medders reveals the latter will expose students to professionals working in Southern California. 

“The workshop will feature guest speakers from Spanish-language media, potentially drawing from Univision, Telemundo, La Opinión (the largest Spanish language newspaper in the U.S.), and the Los Angeles Times, as well as the nonprofit California Chicano News Media Association(CCNMA).” This organization promotes “diversity in the news media by providing encouragement, scholarships, and educational programs for Latinos pursuing careers in journalism.”

He also mentions Cal Lutheran’s student newspaper, The Echo, and its award-winning Spanish-language insert, El Eco, will benefit from ESPHA. The project will enable the papers to add a student beat reporter to cover regional news from and about the Latinx community.

“With a reporter dedicated specifically to Latinx issues, the publications can lead to a broader understanding of Hispanic cultures at home and abroad and strengthen the overall diversity of our newsroom,” Medders said. Not only will this role give students hands-on experiences with Spanish language media, but it will also increase campus-wide engagement with issues important to Spanish speakers.

A healthy synergy yielding lasting results 

Both Fiore Urizar’s and Medders’ professional experiences gave them the knowledge and insights to help Cal Lutheran receive this grant. 

Since joining Cal Lutheran more than a decade ago, Fiore Urizar has developed and led two successful interdisciplinary student travel seminars, one to Peru with a history professor in 2019, and another to Spain with a mathematics professor in 2016. She led a ten-week study abroad trip to Oaxaca, Mexico at another university, and her areas of research include the intersections among literature, visual arts, popular culture, and gender studies. 

Her achievements extend outside the classroom. Cal Lutheran recognized Fiore Urizar last year with a noteworthy distinction — the President’s Award for Teaching Excellence. Along with the Graduate School of Education, she spearheaded the development of a Spanish Bilingual Authorization Certificate the California Teaching Credential approved last year. 

Fiore Urizar said she and Medders will highlight the grant’s outcomes at upcoming conferences. They will share results during a presentation at the American Council on the Teachers of Foreign Languages’ annual convention as well as on campus.

“We will prepare a presentation with key personnel and students for Cal Lutheran’s annual Festival of Scholars and a Brown Bag presentation in the Center for Teaching and Learning during the semester,” Fiore Urizar said. 

Medders specializes in mass communication and research methods and teaches courses on political communication and international media. He supported the development of the Spanish Media minor while serving as chair of the Communication department and created the department’s first course on international communication. This course introduces students to the theories of this topic and the contemporary challenges national, regional, and global media systems and industries face. 

He has co-created and co-led two faculty-led, short-term, interdisciplinary travel seminars to China and Japan since he began teaching at Cal Lutheran in 2010. This past spring, he co-led a domestic seminar as an alternative to a study abroad program in Japan and worked with the Office of Education Abroad to facilitate student visits to several sites in Los Angeles. These included trips to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, restaurants, shops, and a bookstore in the city’s historic Little Tokyo district. 

“It’s crucial for today’s undergraduates to gain international perspectives,” Medders said. “Beyond earning credits toward a degree and growing their personal and professional networks, students who have studied outside the U.S. will be better equipped to navigate a multicultural workforce.”


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