A Semester Unlike Any Other
by Sara Curnow Wilson
Your college roommates might disturb your sleep and occasionally act like animals, but have you ever been woken up by an actual monkey? Or zip-lined for college credit? Has staying out all night dancing ever helped your studies?
For students in the Latin American Studies Semester (LASS), a small program in the College of Liberal Arts making a big impact throughout the university, the answer to these questions may be “yes.”
“There is no other program like this at Temple,” says LASS Director and Department Chair Hiram Aldarondo. “For those students who cannot afford to live abroad, LASS offers them the opportunity to be part of an immersion program while also being at home.”
LASS students—LASSies, as they call themselves—take four courses during the semester: an advanced intensive Spanish language course, a sociology course on Latin America, a course centering on film and Latin America, and a seminar where they discuss a wide range of topics related to Latin American and Latino studies. Classes meet every day of the week to encourage as much use of the language as possible.
The highlight of the semester is the trip abroad. LASSies spend three weeks living with homestay families and learning alongside students at a local university. The current international destination is Costa Rica, where students study at the Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica. The LASS program, which has been offered every spring since 1973 and has a lengthy wait list each year, has also featured trips to the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Mexico.
The professors in LASS are the most devoted people I've yet to work with. Their love and passion has spread into all of our hearts.
-Nashea Fable '19, Major: Philosophy, Minor: Spanish
The program is unique in many ways. It is the college’s only interdisciplinary certificate and semester program with an international component. The trip abroad is run entirely by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, not Temple’s Education Abroad office. And last, but certainly not least, the semester is conducted entirely in Spanish.
Upon return, students continue their classes and complete a community service phase—projects that take a variety of forms.
LASS alumnus Colin Walsh (CLA ’15), for instance, worked with organization Puentes de Salud to tutor first graders at Southwark Elementary School in South Philly, while current senior Taylor Kaminsky administered health literacy screenings to parents of pre-K children with North Philly’s Norris Square Community Alliance.
Kaminsky says the community service component helped her realize that she wants to put her new knowledge of Latin American studies to work within the non-profit sector.
“As a result of LASS, I discovered my passion not only for learning Spanish but for learning about and experiencing Latin culture in some sort of professional capacity,” she says.
When a person is constantly engaging in Spanish all day, it is only a matter of time until things just start clicking and you stop 'trying' to speak Spanish, you just 'do.'
-Tom DiAgostino '16, Major: Women's Studies and Spanish, Minor: Political Science
Kaminsky echoes here something many others have expressed. Though the draw of LASS is its immersion component, the students also develop a much broader interest and proficiency in Latin American history, politics, and culture.
“Students not only leave LASS with a greater communicative competence in Spanish, but they are also heavily invested in the diverse opportunities that LASS has offered,” says program instructor Brendan Spinelli.
It is common for students to change their program of study after returning. Some students switch to a Spanish major; others complement their chosen major with a minor in Spanish or another of the department’s many certificates (the department’s Spanish certificate program, of which LASS is a part, was recently ranked #1 in the nation by the Foreign Language Colleges website).
LASS certainly affected my career path. After graduating, I worked in the non-profit world for 10+ years in housing and doing direct outreach with the Spanish-speaking community. I also completed a master's in Latin American studies at the University of Chicago.
-Elizabeth Corredor '01, Major: Spanish with a certificate in Multilingual Business and Governmental Studies, Minor: Latin American Studies
This continued student involvement makes sense to Spinelli. “They are so empowered by how much Spanish they have learned and the experiences they have cultivated with their classes and community that they feel committed to continue exploring the language and culture far beyond the LASS semester,” he explains.
Perhaps LASS’s broadest appeal, however, is its ability to shape not just interests but perspectives. The program’s particular challenges—navigating a new culture and homestay family abroad, connecting with communities at home—allow for a type of self-development that can be hard to achieve in the classroom alone.
LASS’s real-world approach empowers students to take chances and overcome fear of failure. Walsh, who says his current job with Congresso de Latinos Unidos would not be possible without LASS and his Spanish degree, makes this clear when asked what skills he gained through the program.
“To not be too hard on myself when I mess up,” he answers. “Learning another language is tough, so there were many mistakes made, but the teachers taught me that it was okay to mess up. As the semester went on, I was able to take their advice.”
Making friends from the use of the Spanish language was the most fulfilling part by far. I have made friends in the country to the point where I know I will return someday.
-John McDonough Fisher '17, Major: International Business with a certificate of specialization in Spanish in Latin American Business
Patricia Moore-Martinez, associate chair for undergraduate studies and associate professor of instruction in Spanish, puts it simply. “The LASS program enriches students academically, personally and professionally. At the end of the semester, LASS students are well positioned to minor or major in Spanish and advance their careers with language, interpersonal and professional skills that make them ready to take on any challenge.”
Even college roommates.