Amplifying Cultures Through the Continent

by Oriana Mejías Martínez

I am a Fellow at the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) program at LaGuardia Community College. I was attracted to this program because as a learner and instructor of languages I have always felt attracted to multilingual and multicultural environments.

The experiences I have had in my work as Fellow at LaGuardia Community College have enriched my own sense of CUNY’s student body with respect to their cultural origins and expectations of college education. As an international student I understand the challenges of immigration processes and the value that education grants to our daily life and professional experience. This fellowship has helped me to combine my experiences and academic knowledge to relate in a profound way with the student body. At LaGuardia and other community colleges students rarely participate in study abroad programs. Led by this, I understood thoroughly why the COIL program is of central importance to LaGuardia students; it opens to them a world that offers them to participate in international education, developing collaborative skills, taking responsibility and agency in learning, centering their experiences and perspectives into their exchanges.

The COIL program at LaGuardia fosters a multicultural classroom since it partners a LaGuardia course with a course from an international institution. Some partnerships are within the same discipline, and in some projects interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches occur. Collaboration happens at two levels: first, faculty collaborate on designing a collaborative project to be carried out virtually by their students; and second, students collaborate on the activities. These types of projects allow faculty to develop and improve their approaches to collaborative knowledge production. While students overseas and in New York complete projects together, they take responsibility for their own learning processes, since mostly their own experiences and expertise are centered. This way COIL projects facilitate mutual learning and collaborative knowledge building.

I had the opportunity to partner two professors from LaGuardia Community College with two professors from Latin America. These partnerships were relevant to me since their main topics relate with my research interests; one course focused on food anthropology and the other on Latin American art history. Both courses resonate with my own teaching of Spanish Language and Culture courses, since food and art (in every expression) complement any language skill, making it more interesting and durable through time, regardless of the career path that one pursues.

While participating in COIL exchanges, students are able to create communities, collaborate on assignments, and surpass the bilingual differential. I was able to participate in the various synchronous meetings that both courses had during the Spring 2022 semester. Additionally, I facilitated translation to and from Spanish and English languages. In fact, a variety of languages coexisted in their online platforms during the exchange. For example, students prepared video introductions that combined images and music. Some of them preferred to play a song and share a set of pictures with personal belongings that would represent them. Students connected through differences and found a way to build bridges despite their language differences.

Intercultural exchange in these two classrooms permeated the whole experience. Students and faculty were understanding, guiding students, and facilitating conversations in a critical way by taking into consideration the diversity of backgrounds reunited in their sessions. The outcomes from each COIL project were collaborative. Food anthropology students produced a cookbook that included recipes from all over the world, representing students’ international backgrounds; in addition to facilitating the exchange, Professors Sarah Bak-Geller (Anthropology/Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and Alcira Forero-Pena (Anthropology/LaGuardia) guided students in editing the book. The COIL program organized the public book launch through an online event, and it will be available as an OER resource.  Students in the Latin American art history exchange produced an art catalog with a recompilation of all the artifacts that students made for their final COIL project in which we may find sculptures from all types of materials, digital design, ceramic, drawing, painting, and collage. Professors Arianne Fernández (Art History/LaGuardia CUNY) and Cristián Salineros (Art/ Universidad Católica de Chile) facilitated the sessions, workshopped art pieces, and curated catalog with their students’ collaboration.

As I approach my own path as a professor, COIL has provided me with a set of skills that derive from the instructor’s multiple roles inside the classroom as an organizer, facilitator, and observer. Little didI know about these assortments of possibilities at LaGuardia Community College before participating in this program. I now feel prepared to share these types of experiences and opportunities with my students going forward.