Spanish vs. Portuguese
My first experience with Middlebury was in 2009. I was looking for an American program that would allow me to complete a master degree in Spanish while studying abroad. At that time, I found two: Middlebury College’s and New York University’s (NYU). Middlebury offered financial aid. NYU did not. So, in one calendar year, I completed my degree through Middlebury, graduating in 2010 after studying at its schools in Vermont, Spain and Mexico.
One of the things I must highlight is that my first experience was at the graduate level. I’d already had nearly a decade of experience studying Spanish before arriving to Midd’s campus. I’d studied abroad in both Argentina and Spain; I’d traveled to Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica; and I’d been a university-level Spanish instructor. So, speaking Spanish all day, every day, didn’t intimidate me. When it came to the Portuguese Language School, I’d only studied Portuguese for two semesters. While I wasn’t scared, avoiding “portuñol,” a convenient hybrid of “português” and “español,” I knew, would be a challenge. Another difference between the Spanish (SPAN) and the Portuguese (PORT) school is sheer size, or, number of enrollees. With all the students, administrators and instructors in the PORT school, there were maybe 50 participants. The SPAN school, I suspect, was at least twice the size of the PORT one. And, I feel confident suggesting that SPAN is the most frequently studied foreign language in the United States. So, there was a significantly large community of people, my father included, with whom I could communicate outside of Midd who’d understand me and be able to meaningfully discuss that summer's undertaking.
Another difference between the schools is target audience. A large cohort of the graduate SPAN school aimed to become high school SPAN teachers or to gain an additional credential in order to improve the services they were already offering. This meant that the students were more mature in age and rather specific about learning goals. While there was a SPAN school for beginners (“principiantes”) in the SPAN School, I’d say that in the graduate program, many students fell into the 24-50-year-old age range. (After all, in theory, in order to earn a master degree, one usually completes a bachelor degree first. And, in the U.S., a large number of students complete undergrad between 18 and 22 years of age.) In the PORT school, some 75% of the students were between the ages of 18 and 25. Some were starting undergrad; some were in undergrad; some had just left undergrad. I am 29, so I didn’t fit into that age group. I also finished undergrad eight years ago in 2006.
So , "How was your summer?" you ask? I'll tell you.
What’s the right level for you?
Based on the students who enroll in the PORT school, administrators must examine students and group them in what they deem appropriate levels. This summer, there were levels 1, 1.5, 2 and 3.5. Level 1 was for people who generally hadn’t studied PORT at all. Level 3.5 included a young man who’d already immersed himself in the language while studying in Brazil but wanted to formalize his knowledge. Based on an oral interview through Skype and an essay of introduction that described who I am, I was placed in level 2, and I struggled with this decision.
The number “2” wasn’t the problem. I went to Middlebury with the expectation of reading and writing. I wanted to read authors who were new to me and reflect on what their works said about Lusophone identity. Level 2 was grammar grammar grammar. Specifically verb conjugation. My grammar wasn’t perfect going in, but I think it could have been placed on a lower level of priority. I wasn’t ready to write Portuguese sonnets, no, but 15 years of experience with Spanish, I felt, had prepared me for a different pace and/or quality of learning. The right level for me may have been 2.5 or 3. However, without having enough students to populate that course, and/or perhaps professors to teach them, I was downgraded to level 2. I fought with this for a long while. Yes, I spoke up. However, I became so exhausted by the resistance I met, that ultimately I gave up the fight.
The benefit of remaining in level 2 was that I could participate in other activities because I didn’t have to, metaphorically speaking, remain ‘married to my books’ from sunrise to sundown. I sang in an a cappella group three times a week; I wrote for our weekly newsletter; and I created electronic “Dirty Laundry 21”/ “Roupa Suja 21” comic strips where I vented my frustrations, much to the delight of my peers, which added some joy and humor to my life. Would I fight harder next time? I’m not so sure. I doubt it. Ultimately, I just want to get along with people and foster peace about me. I’m not sure winning the 2 vs. 3.5 battle would have made me feel like a winner. It’s sort of like when you’re in a romantic relationship and you’re arguing and perhaps you’re right, but insisting on a point doesn’t really aid the union and foster feelings of love, you know?
School vs. Summer Camp
I’m not sure if the PORT School knows which ethos it wants to promote more greatly: the idea that it is a school that demands rigor and dedication or the idea that it is a residential experience akin to summer camp in which the activities outside of class are as important as what occurs within the classroom. Perhaps it wants to promote both equally. However, the academic work is recorded on a transcript and the connections with peers are monitored independently.
The issue for me was that I was surrounded by people from 8:30am-2:40pm five days a week. When I had the chance to get away, I did because I needed to. I have some pretty strong introverted and highly-sensitive (HSP) qualities. And being stimulated by noise, people and conversation for extended periods of time was taxing for me. Moreover, there was—I’ll just say it—constant pressure to do, act, become involved, perform, participate, join. Frequently I simply needed to be alone. And that, beyond the many pages of grammar exercises, the multiple essays and being far and away from the people I love, was perhaps that greatest challenge of all. I’m hardly anti-social, I think. But my language school was asking a lot of me with poetry club, band club, yoga, cooking class, theater, samba, capoeira, academic talks, etc. Rest and “unplugging” were/are important to me and those values were not really supported/promoted. I understand that the program would likely prefer for there to be an excess of things to do as opposed to a lack. I also think, however, that there's a difference between an invitation to participate and the pressure to attend events.
Would you recommend Middlebury's Lanuguage Schools?
Yes. And also no.
I would recommend the PORT school to 18-24-year-olds who are really involved in extracurricular activities, who are extroverted and perhaps for whom grades won’t have a significant impact.
I would recommend the PORT school to people who are headed to a Lusophone country directly following the program.
I would not recommend this school to anyone who has dependents, those dependents being young or old, and must leave them in order to attend.
I would not recommend this school to anyone who is overwhelmed by crowds and/or noise or who may be restless or claustrophobic.
The PORT School caters to young people who are exceptionally active and able to easily balance academic activity with communal play. I’m not sure I’m one of those people. I found that I could do the former well, but found consistent difficulty doing the latter. It is no surprise to me that the four people who did not make it to the end of the program were all over the age of 35. They left the program for a variety of reasons, health being one of the reasons cited, familial responsibilities being another. However, it might be accurate to put all of these reasons under the umbrella term “failure to thrive” or “difficulty in adapting.” I believe there was truth in this/these categorizations.
I didn’t really want to bring this up. Ta-nehisi Coates, however, did in his piece, “Acting French,” perhaps indirectly and more socially than racially. (Listen to him talk about his experience here.) I’ll say this: of the 45ish students, I believe 7 were “people of color.” There were three black American women including myself, two Mexican students from Mexico, a young lady who I believed was Latina and one student from Korea. In other words, three of these students were international students. So there were 4 American (U.S.) minorities.
How do I feel about this? I felt there were too few people of color. I lamented the lack of black men. There are full scholarships for students coming from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) but I don’t know what efforts Midd makes to promote them. Does a scholarship exist if you don’t know it exists? Yes, I raised the issue of diversity with administration twice. I’ve considered writing directly to language instructors and administration at Spelman, Morehouse and Howard. I haven’t… yet. I have to contemplate whether or not this is my responsibility/place and how Midd, as an institution, would gauge this action. Moreover, I don’t quite understand why a student of color from Harvard, from Texas A&M or from any university I’ve attended in my long, academic career would be automatically ineligible for these awards merely because none is an HBCU. My energy for fighting is less and lower everyday.
Would you go back?
Yes, yes I would go back. I would not like to start studying a language from scratch with Midd. I don’t want to have an experience where I can’t say, “I’m cold” or “What was the homework assignment?” or “Do you have any Grey Poupon?” Kidding.
Middlebury is indeed more than just language and play. It’s an opportunity for powerful network building. I can’t emphasize that enough. I have friends all over the United States who are Midd alums who are willing to support me, house me, feed me when I visit their states, to let me rub shoulders with their colleagues and to point me in the direction of advantageous opportunities. And, truthfully, you do learn the language you study. You don’t come out speaking perfectly, but you finish with the confidence to make mistakes in public. And that is a huge part of language learning: the confidence to take risks. When I hear Portuguese around me now, I’m not afraid to engage and I’m not deathly afraid of getting things wrong. The language is so familiar in my mouth that I converse, correctly and incorrectly, with whomever will listen. I also have a treasure chest of warm memories now all related to Vermont and the people I met there. Midd isn’t for everyone but it is with work, adjustment, limits and discipline, at the moment, for me. On another note, so much of any success I might have is related to taking risks, exercising faith and being able to tolerate discomfort and uncertainty. Midd, I suppose, is simply another type of experience that required me to do all of those things.