"My name is Gwendolene Mugodi and I am a writer and the founder of Paivapo Storytellers, a movement that aims to provide better access to local, good quality literature to the children in Zimbabwe--and eventually beyond. Our work would not be complete without the help of local artists like Abel Zvorufura who I met through the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. As two different artists we spent about a month and a half going back and forth on this book until we got to a place we were both happy with. I look forward to sharing that full book in a few months, but for now here's a little bit about Abel and why he does what he does."
Voices Lost and Found: Stories of the Student Language Exchange
This semester, students at Brown are learning to greet someone in Malay, get directions in Dutch and barter in Tamil. These languages are not, however, listed in Brown’s course register. Malay, Dutch and Tamil are the latest of a growing list of languages that have been offered by the Student Language Exchange (SLE), a peer-based language learning community founded by Amelia Friedman. (Storyteller hint: Click the pictures!)
To Friedman, too much diversity on campus was being overlooked. Though Brown students could color in much of a world map with their origins, some cultures seemed more visible or celebrated than others. She wanted to do something useful—and what was more useful than languages? From her own experiences, Friedman knew that languages could provide an entry point to people, places, cultures and ideas otherwise inaccessible.
However, when she approached the university with the idea of a peer language exchange program, she realized she still had many questions to answer.
How can we train students to be effective and accountable teachers? Can this be sustainable? Where will we find the resources to teach languages without existing curricula? What’s the best way to supplement, not infringe upon, the university’s formal language programs?
And most importantly, why should people care?
Friedman worked on her pitch. There was a larger problem at stake: the gaps in Brown’s language curriculum were part of a growing language deficit in American universities. By the numbers, 95 percent of students enrolled in language classes study a European language. On a national level, only 10 percent of native-born Americans speak a language other than English.
Then there was the novelty sell. SLE would be the first program of its kind. It was ambitious—and therefore risky—but potentially trailblazing.
Writing articles and applying for grants, Friedman explained the unrecognized economic and social utility in engaging with societies at the “bottom of the pyramid.” In her words:“We need to help the next generation of global leaders understand the value of learning overlooked languages.”
Friedman’s coupling of persistence and professionalism eventually won over the university, which now helps fund a stipend for the program’s teaching fellows.
“The Center for Language Studies funds the Brown SLE fellows with a stipend because of our belief in the mission and sustainability of the program,” said Elsa Amanatidou, director to the Center of Language Studies at Brown University. “The program addresses a gap in our curricular operations by providing exposure and a support network for students who are interested in less commonly taught foreign languages and cultures. Right now we are spending a lot of resources to teach students a few languages. Why is that? What draws us to the obvious? Why not Bengali?”
There’s a lot that makes SLE work. It taps into the target community itself to solve the problem of language deficit. The peer-based model allows for raw passion and instant accessibility between fellows and participants. By changing its offerings every semester, the program maximizes exposure to a diverse range of languages.
Yet with success come challenges. A self-proclaimed “type A personality,” Friedman found it difficult at first to relinquish control over her visions. However, as more people connected to SLE’s mission and the program began to expand, Friedman realized SLE would only reach its full potential if she let go. Though she plans to work on SLE full-time after she graduates, she has handed over most of the oversight of Brown’s program to other students.
“This is no longer just me. When I let people be creative, they build new, beautiful things. People own SLE in diverse and personally meaningful ways, and through that, create a network of global awareness and collective dialogue,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about.” “Plus, I’m running out of my own ideas anyway,” she laughed. In learning to have faith in others, Friedman finally discovered the pieces that were missing from her answer to the question, “Why should people care?”
All along they were the stories of SLE participants themselves. What drew them to SLE? How did it change them? What did they find along the way? These are the unsung narratives—the carvings on the underside of the boat, and the stories that will be told long after the grants end and the press releases expire.
Rigzom Wangchuk, ‘14
Status: SLE Fellow, Language: Dzongkha
I am currently the only Brown student from Bhutan. For a very long time, I struggled to find a platform to convey my culture to others and to express it myself. By sophomore year, I had given up. When SLE advertised Dzongkha, I was felt encouraged by the number of people who had signed up and even by the sheer number people who reached out to me. On the first day of class, some of the participants couldn’t point to Bhutan on a map. They can now read and write in the Dzongkha script. There was a time I thought nobody cared to know anything about Bhutan, and now I have a dedicated space to share it with participants who are eager to learn.
Sandra Kimokoti, ‘15
Status: SLE Fellow, Language: Swahili
Coming to Brown from Kenya, I was surprised to learn that African languages weren’t offered. When I realized that taking Swahili wasn’t an option, I decided to teach it. Each class, we talk about culture and contemporary issues. Some topics, like dowry and initiation ceremonies, shock my students, but it’s gratifying to draw parallels that bring these traditions into focus for them. When I compare the practice of dowry to the tradition of buying an expensive wedding ring, for instance, I see a spark of recognition. My students realize that our cultural differences aren’t as great as they may think.
Rexy Josh Dorado, ‘14
Status: SLE Participant, Language: Tagalog
I was born in the Philippines, but lost sight of my Filipino identity when I moved to the United States for middle school. I never learned Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. When I learned that SLE was offering it, I was excited to learn my native tongue. What I didn’t expect to find was a space to celebrate and reflect on what it means to come from an underrepresented culture. After our class ended, a group of us created an independent study project to take a closer look at the Filipino identity and diaspora. I also started my own social venture, Kaya Collaborative, which aims to retain social and economic capital in the Philippines by empowering overseas Filipinos to work there. I’ve discovered a connection to my heritage and experienced the power of forming communities around shared identities.
Growing up in Toronto, I never regarded the Shanghainese I spoke at home as a real language—it was more like a secret code between my parents and me. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned of the real possibility that Shanghainese may go extinct. The charming notion of speaking in code has been replaced with sadness that this language that is so personal to me is dying. Native speakers increasingly regard the language as uneducated, colloquial and impractical. After the end of their semester-long commitment, the participants in my SLE section wanted to keep learning Shanghainese, so we continue to hold classes and are applying to be a student club. We are also making a video about learning Shanghainese; our hope is that people in Shanghai will watch it and realize that it’s possible to teach Shanghainese to others, and that foreigners are interested in learning it. In addition to teaching Shanghainese, I am doing research on language use in Shanghai for my thesis.
I grew up between Harrogate, England and Lanark, Scotland. As I got older, I spent less time in Scotland and began losing touch with my grandmother—my best friend growing up. As my own accent grew markedly English from school, my grandmother’s Scottish accent became incomprehensible. Before long, we could no longer understand each other. For me, education entailed losing the ability to communicate with my family and connect with my roots. At Brown, I took Bulgarian and got involved in an administrative role with SLE. I wanted to find an educational experience that felt inclusive rather than exclusive.
August 11, 2016
June 13, 2016
Lauren Maunus '19 is starting a bold new venture.
Its goal: To help eliminate food waste and bring healthy, affordable food to "food swamps" in Rhode Island and beyond.
March 15, 2016"If little girls like me were saying Barbie is the pretty one and the brown one is the ugly one, that's a problem."
Yelitsa Jean-Charles studies Illustration at RISD with a a concentration in Gender, Race & Sexuality. She identifies as a visual activist, and believes that artists have a responsibility as society’s image-makers. Her doll company and book series, Healthy Roots, combats internalized racism and colorism by getting to the root of the problem: altering beauty standards and cultviating self-love for young girls through education, diversity, and positive representation.
March 12, 2016An Excerpt
Mina is a Brown-RISD Social Innovation Fellow. She traveled to her home in Iran last summer and brought back a cultural souvenir: the book she wrote, Taste of Culture. She explores Iranian families, streets, stores and the stories and spirit embedded in the recipes of Iranian food. She hopes to start a conversation about the benefit of knowing cuisines of different cultures to connect societies.
This year's class of Brown-RISD Social Innovation Fellows have just begun their yearlong foray into the world of social entrepenuership. Check out their projects here.
December 16, 2015
Ria is a 2015 Social Innovation Fellow and co-founder of No Country for Women (NCFW), an internationally-recognized gender education initiative that aims to combat systemic gender-based discrimination in India. Ria and her co-founder, Shreena Thakore ’16, who grew up in India, were awarded the Projects for Peace fellowship and used this grant to launch the project in May of 2014. NCFW was set up to educate the people in India on gender, rape culture, and misogyny through a series of workshops and initiate informed discussions about social change.
I was inspired by Ria’s story because she was determined to start a conversation about an issue in a country that fights hard to keep such issues silent and hidden. We reflected on Ria’s experiences, her interactions with young people, most of whom had never thought about this obvious form of discrimination before, and her moments of self-doubt and extreme conviction.
December 8, 2015
Drew first became interested in filmmaking at an end of the year party at his kindergarten graduation, glued to the screen watching Star Wars while his friends ran around the yard screaming. His love of political science was ignited by his high school constitutional law class and exposure to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, all of which provided average citizens access to a better understanding of the impact of the law.
Now Drew is a junior at Brown, bringing together his interests by double concentrating in Political Science and Modern Culture and Media. He brings his passion for filmmaking and accessibility of policies outside of the classroom by making films with Brown Motion Pictures and working as the head University News editor for The Brown Daily Herald. Next semester, however, Drew is taking the spring off to work at the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, Ireland, where he’ll be working in the consulate, handling public affairs issues, and hopefully creating multimedia projects while being in charge of their website.