Language floors unite living and learning.

Residence hall floors dedicated for students interested in French and Spanish offer students community, language learning, and a taste of cultural immersion.

By Keely Savoie

Developing global perspective is a keystone piece of the Mount Holyoke College experience, where cultural competency is considered to be essential for preparing students for meaningful engagement in the world.

This year, to extend the accessibility of language and cultural immersion, the College introduced two language-based floors in Mead Hall. Now, students can get a taste of French and Spanish immersion—right where they live.

“Mount Holyoke just received the Senator Paul Simon Award recognizing the College’s successful efforts to create a truly global experience for our students and this is in alignment with that,” said Marcella Runell Hall, dean of students. “This is an opportunity for students to have that global exchange experience without leaving campus.”

After deciding to offer language floors as a pilot program, the Office of Residential Life surveyed students and, based on interest, created a “French floor” and a “Spanish floor.” Each floor was assigned a community advisor and a language assistant.

The floors were open to students of all backgrounds, from beginners to native speakers, with one prerequisite: interest in learning about the language and the cultures of the countries where it is spoken.

Language-enamored students jumped at the chance to practice, improve, and polish their skills in their daily lives.

“I actually signed up for the French floor while I was in France during study abroad,” said Amelia Ley ’16 of Portland, Oregon, who is majoring in French with a minor in Spanish. She wanted to sustain her immersion experience and continue to build her language knowledge when she returned to campus, as well as to continue to learn about French-speaking culture.

Ley became the advisor for the French floor, and immediately set about to build a strong, French-speaking community by helping to organize community-engagement nights and events focused on the French language and culture.

And it’s not just language that students learn.

“Such intentional engagement across differences outside the classroom offers no-stress, fun, relaxed, and unique opportunities for students to advance their intercultural competencies and to develop a new sense of selves and their own cultures,” said Eva Paus, Carol Hoffman Collins Director of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives.

Both the French- and Spanish-language floors have regular events, including movie nights, performances, and workshops. There was even a Spanish/French cooking competition that pitted flan against caramel crème brûlée—to build a greater sense of community and engage the students in speaking the respective languages. The Spanish floor also has an opt-in volunteer program that students can participate in for credit; through the Community-Based Learning Program (CBL), they assist four different schools in Holyoke with interpretation needs.

Maria Jose Correa FP’17 is the language liaison for the Spanish floor. She is from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and is majoring in Spanish with minors in education and Latin American studies. Correa—known as “MaJo” by the students on her floor—coordinates the community-building events aimed at sparking more Spanish-language socialization. She has witnessed her efforts bear the fruit of success.

Likewise, the French-floor students have found community and learning among students with shared interests.

“Our community advisor has made me feel like part of the community,” said Mairead Tuttle ’18, of Kingston, Pennsylvania, who recently declared French as her major. “I think that the focus on French culture that the floor gave me was influential in my decision about the study abroad programs to which I applied.”

Ultimately, the goal is to expand the language floors and offer more languages and cultural options for interested students.

“It was a very positive pilot,” said Flavia Cunha, a Spanish instructor and faculty advisor for the floor. “The idea is to expand the program to offer more languages if the interest is there.”

The pilot program has shown that such designated floors enrich the lives of those participating, as well as the greater community of Mount Holyoke.

“We are always interested in creating new programs like this and figuring out what living-learning communities should be like at Mount Holyoke,” said Hall.

Language-based residence options may expand to include many other languages and cultures in future years, said Hall—the specifics of which will be determined by student interest. Still, the option to live in organic communities without specific themes will remain.

“We’ll always maintain halls where people can live together with students of different years, different majors, different interests,” said Hall. “It will always be a ‘both and.’ ”