They come together — from different cultures and countries, with different educations and incomes — to learn each others’ languages.
Intercambio is a language exchange program in which students (learning Spanish) and members of the community (learning English) meet and converse. It’s a partnership between the Irwin W. Steans Center for Community-based Service Learning, DePaul’s department of modern languages, and several community organizations, including Centro Romero, Heartland Alliance’s Refugee & Immigrant Community Services (RIC), and Erie Neighborhood House.
But when all is said and done, participants do a lot more than enhance their foreign language skills.
“Our students and the community members talk about everything — politics, racism, class divisions, social justice — and, in doing that, they get past preconceptions and prejudices: they form real relationships,” says Lourdes Sullivan, program coordinator.
“Intercambio creates a comfortable space for true dialogue.”
The program is modeled on the ideas of Paolo Freire (“Pedagogy of the Oppressed”) who proposed a level playing field between students and teachers, so that life experiences become the source of topics for discussion: among participants, these life experiences are shared, analyzed, and validated. Intercambio participants meet once a week for three hours; each session includes an activity, a group discussion, and one-on-one or one-on-two conversations.
“School systems typically enforce an authoritarian model and a distant, formal relationship between teacher and student,” says Sullivan.
“Under this framework, community members would automatically assume that ‘university students are above us’ — not just because they’re in college but also because some of them are more affluent. But in Intercambio, no one is really the ‘teacher’ or ‘learner’: the participants are equal, because they’re equally good (or bad) at speaking the other’s language. Also, given that the discussion topics are issues of universal interest, the community participants might even have an advantage since they’re typically older and more worldly-wise.”
Marisol Morales, associate director of the Steans Center, agrees:
“In Intercambio, education is a two-way street: community members gain a deeper understanding of U.S. culture as represented by our students; our students get to interact with people who have different ethnic backgrounds and life experiences: they learn from each other. Maybe best of all, the program is ‘owned’ by student mentors, trained in the pedagogy, who develop the curriculum, choose materials, and facilitate the sessions.”
One of those student mentors is Vanesa Camacho Quintero (BS ‘14):
“I love the seeing the dialogue that develops between people who would never meet otherwise: an unusual dynamic emerges, one that would not be part of a typical English-as-a-second-language class. We don’t talk about the weather!
“Each session starts with an activity for the whole group — we read a news story or watch a short video, for example. Then, ‘Let’s talk about it’ is the next step. First, we have a group discussion — I keep the conversation going (if it lags) and on track (if it wanders) by asking questions or playing the devil’s advocate. Finally, participants break into pairs for a focused dialogue. Each session is a collaborative effort. We create an environment that is safe, not just for language practice, but for real sharing.”
Jacqueline Lazú, associate professor and one of the original developers of Intercambio in 2001, speaks of the program’s results with deserved enthusiasm:
“Our retention rate — students who take a whole year of intermediate Spanish — is very high. At the same time, community members also come back, again and again. Everyone gets so much value out of the program.
"What’s great to see is that moment of realization: ‘I have something to share! And I want to share it.’ By engaging in conversations, our students show extraordinary improvement in their proficiency. Early on, they don’t have the tools to frame arguments and counterarguments, but by the end of the quarter, I’ve seen a trans¬formation among students in terms of their confidence levels.”
Sullivan tells why Intercambio is a perfect fit for DePaul:
“Intercambio is about reciprocity and social justice: students take and give, and they experience a profound realization that cultural and class barriers are false. Diversity is a social value, and we all need to do more to preserve differences — in languages, cultures, and perspectives. On top of that, if we can plant the seed of taking action on social issues, if we can help people change practices in their own worlds, we’ve succeeded.”