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Transitioning U.S. Latinx Students to an Online Environment for Displaced Study Abroad Students

During my spring break in Rosario, Argentina I was woken up on an early overcast Thursday morning by the ping of my WhatsApp. My Argentinean best friend sent me a message alerting me that President Alberto Fernández had just declared a stay at home emergency order. More specifically, any foreigner that had arrived in the country in the past two weeks was required to maintain quarantine for fourteen days or they would risk a minimum six months jail sentence.

Since the plane landed in Buenos Aires that past Saturday, my Argentinean family and I had been watching the COVID-19 Crisis escalate quickly. I fell back into a light slumber, dreaming of boarding a Buquebus ferry to travel across the Rio de la Plata with my Uruguayan passport and spend the impending quarantine on the beaches of Rocha, Uruguay. There I would need nothing else but my books and laptop. I would pass the days writing articles and conference papers I hadn’t had time to focus on in the past with the grind of academic life. I would sit in a hamaca Paraguaya eating jars of dulce de leche and watching the stars. The poetic daydream quickly vanished, I awoke again, this time to a string of e-mails canceling all upcoming in-person events.

Conference cancelations flooded in throughout the morning as I sipped my café con leche; Latin American Studies Association in Guadalajara, Mexico; Latin American Jewish Studies Association in Curaçao; Fulbright Congress in Washington D.C. I watched my calendar clear in a way it hadn’t since the beginning of graduate school, over eleven years ago. I, like most academics I know, base my calendar year on conferences, final exams, and article deadlines. Without those anchors on the horizon I felt like a boat lost at sea. Shortly after, the final confirmation arrived, that indeed, we would be teaching virtually the rest of the semester.

As the morning crept on, my awareness of the gravity of the situation began to sink in. Would I be able to leave Argentina? Would I be allowed back in the United States? I tried to focus on something I could control. I became obsessed with the exam that was scheduled for that coming Monday after the break. I had copies printed before leaving but could not remember where I left them. I changed my flight back to Washington D.C. for that same evening. The thoughts of having to spend time in an Argentinean jail because I went out to get medialunas the day before made me shiver like my sobrinitas after jumping in the pool after sunset.

As I prepared to depart, I packed my things and felt a heavy heart missing out on the much-needed family time I had been looking forward to for over a year. As a Ph.D. candidate and visiting faculty member, a roundtrip ticket to Argentina is a huge expense and one not to be taken lightly. Anyone with family living in South America while working in the United States knows, each day on those visits is like gold. You want to enjoy every second. The fact this particular visit home in Argentina was cut four days short, strangely, felt like a minor blight in the larger context. When the Boeing 757 filled with ten total passengers landed in the United States, the empty halls of La Guardia were something out of an apocalypse movie. Later that night, I returned home, thankful, and emotionally exhausted, not fully prepared for what was to come.

There was a need for faculty members to prepare online emergency courses for students who were displaced from their study abroad programs. Students had been planning, in some cases years, for their international immersions in Latin America and Spain. Suddenly, they were packing their bags and given just days to return home. I thought back on my study abroad immersions during undergraduate and graduate school. I would be peeling off the magazine images I used to decorate my host family bedroom, saying passion-filled goodbyes to the locals I had befriended in Montevideo. I imagined the tears flowing down my cheeks as I stared for hours at the winding Amazon river as the bumpy plane flew over Brazil. I always get so emotional 40,000 feet in the air. I could only imagine the confusion, sadness, and fear these young scholars were experiencing.

I jumped at the opportunity to teach these displaced students, feeling this would be something small I could do to take action. I could assist these students so they wouldn’t lose all their credits for the semester. Having taught U.S. Latinx literature courses online for over five years at another university, I didn’t feel intimidated nor daunted by this new virtual learning context.

Determined to make this experience meaningful for my students, I began to brainstorm ways to go beyond Zoom conferencing and break out rooms. How could I keep students engaged and excited about U.S. Latinx culture? What could I do to break away from the standard Zoom recorded lecture? Immediately, after just one day in the online setting from spring, it occurred to me the immense amount of time students would be required to spend on their screens. Then, I thought of the fact that listening rather staring at their screens might be an excellent alternative.

Radio Ambulante came to mind, the narrative podcast that shares unique and incredibly valuable Latin American stories in Spanish. The course I designed intended to allow students to continue “immersing” themselves in Spanish, as they hoped to do so during their sojourns abroad, and learn more about U.S. Latinx culture, history, and literature. Radio Ambulante’s recently launched program, El Hilo, had just released podcasts focused specifically on the Coronavirus, such as Migrantes: Atrapados en Medio de la Pandemia. I thought using this resource would be a way to stay aware of the situation we were all talking about in our homes, but learn from a perspective that was otherwise being silenced in Spanish language mainstream media. To my delight, I received immediate feedback from my students that they felt grateful and excited about the podcasts! They were actively engaged in our first discussions and appreciated the variety of topics, ranging from COVID-19 and how it impacted the migrant community in the United States to experiences of Latinx immigrants in Maine.

After a few weeks into our course, I noticed myself craving books, physical books that smelled slightly from years on a shelf, that I could underline and highlight. Even listening to audiobooks, as my 90-year-old grandma listens to Quixote on repeat to fall asleep each night, as a break from all the online teaching and news I was consuming on my laptop. My screen time had increased nine hours daily and I am certain my students’ screen time grew even more.

I wanted to introduce students to a Latinx author, and immediately Ingrid Rojas Contreras came to mind. Contreras’s autobiographically-inspired novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree/ La Fruta Del Borrachero vividly captures the turmoil of 1990s Colombia. Granted the fact that various students enrolled in my course had just recently returned from their study abroad programs in Colombia, I thought this may be a great match. The author graciously agreed to visit our online course for an interview. To motivate more participation, I created a google doc where students could begin to draft questions for the author as they read. Some students who expressed screen fatigue purchased the book on Audible and shared copies with one another.

The day Ingrid Rojas Contreras was scheduled to join my course was day four of the #GeorgeFloyd #blacklivesmatter movement that continued to sweep across the U.S. and the world. I e-mailed students that morning to inquire if they were still up to hosting our speaker and interview. I received a few very brief responses of, sí. The previous week, I participated in various virtual training sessions with faculty, hosted by my university. Conversations centered around questions of how to maintain academic rigor in the virtual environment, give students “something else to focus on,” and maintain the high academic standards of our prestigious university.

That afternoon, over half the class was absent, participating in protests and demonstrating their solidarity with black communities around the world. I took a deep breath in, mentally prepared to take a very active role in the interview, and pushed record on Zoom for those who were unable to join. The few students who were present expressed gratitude for the opportunity. After the interview, I received four messages stating how much that experience meant to them and how much they learned from the author. I reflected on this, and sure, the interview didn’t go quite as I expected, much less participation and student’s voice than I envisioned. Perhaps, reminding students that did join the discussion that if the author asks questions such as “where were you all studying abroad?” it would be good to unmute the microphone to respond rather than silence. But this is a learning process for everyone. In normal circumstances, sure, I would have made lots of revisions. But these are not normal circumstances.

This leads me to my biggest lesson of all from this first wave of virtual learning during the COVID-19 health crisis. Now more than ever, it is our responsibility as educators to leave space in our syllabi and classrooms for flexibility, compassion, and creativity. I am confident that some of the best courses that will come out of this will be those that offered an open, honest approach to learning. Students are going through significant amounts of stress, sleeping on their parent’s couches because their childhood room is now used as an office.  Juniors who are graduating next year watch as their thousands in student loan debt continue to rise while receiving a virtual learning experience far from their campus home. They are well aware that they will face a gloomy reality on the job market next year. One student became a full-time babysitter for her sister’s young child because as a nurse her sister had to continue to respond to the health needs of others. This 20-year-old star student who had dreamed to apply for Fulbright in the fall to Brazil and had planned to spend the summer volunteering in Nicaragua before COVID now stopped attending class. When she did, she sat in silence. I could sense her emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion in her body language on the screen.

I would say educators, too, are facing stress unlike anything before. That is why conversations and solidarity among colleagues are more important now than ever. If the department has a historically independent atmosphere, as we write our journal articles and books and the doors remain closed besides office hours, that needs to change moving forward in this context. Resources for self-care and productivity while working from home need to be made readily available and accessed without shame. If we aren’t taking care of ourselves, how can we expect to create an enriching, safe, creative learning environment, where students will feel empowered and motivated to do their best work possible?

Above all, why not take advantage of the new insight the online space offers to our teaching? I have taught various versions of my U.S. Latinx literature course for over seven years. Thanks to the entirely online setting, I discovered flaws in the structure and feasibility that do not allow students to reach the maximum potential to tap into their creativity. I look forward to approaching the fall semester head-on, whether a hybrid course, entirely online, or in another form not discovered yet. We will maintain música viernes, and I will blast Reggaetón and Cumbia through Zoom for my students because of the smirk it brings to their faces. I see their shoulders relax a little, and en serio, for this, no hay palabras.

Author bio:

Gina Malagold is currently a Faculty Lecturer at Georgetown University, PhD (ABD) in US Latinx Studies in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and holds an MA in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Image: “Classroom” by clvs7 is licensed under CC0 1.0.

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