Morgan professor launches virtual Spanish exchange program

How one Morgan professor is bridging cultural gaps through computer screens.


Courtesy of Gonzalo Baptista

A screenshot of a vIrtual language exchange program session with UCLM.

Aziah Siid, Campus News Editor

A Morgan Spanish professor partnered with an English language professor at a university in Spain to create Morgan’s first virtual Spanish exchange program in the fall semester.

With the announcement of a fully remote fall semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some professors worried about how they’d keep their students engaged and excited about learning. Although Spanish Professor Gonzalo Baptista had only taught at Morgan for two months before the university shut down, once he understood the fall semester would be remote-only, he started brainstorming ways to ensure that his students would look forward to logging into Zoom every week despite the circumstances.

“I was really worried about the intermediate level students that we have,” Baptista said. “Remote learning courses are not going to give the language students the same possibilities to practice and interact with the language.”

In May, he decided to contact his alma mater, La Universidad de Castilla La Mancha (UCLM) in Spain, to discuss a combined language course for students from both universities. Essentially, students at Morgan learning intermediate level Spanish would be paired with UCLM students learning intermediate level English and would meet once a week via Zoom.

“I just wanted to pair my students’ level to a course that had a similar level in the second language,” Baptista said.

Ultimately, with the online learning environment already in place for the fall semester, the partnership was approved. The V12 Language Exchange Connecting Through Black Lives Matter, focused on topics like cultural traditions, holidays, and differing ways of life.

Baptista knew that he wanted to touch on a number of social justice issues in the United States, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement, which saw a resurgence last year in the name of victims of police brutality. He said that while it holds significance in the U.S., those outside of the country may not have the full context.

“For example, in Europe I guess that they understand it in a different way,” Baptista said. “Some people were lacking the information related about how African Americans and Latino communities are living in the United States.”

Throughout the semester, 24 students participated in a series of breakout sessions, intellectual conversations, and even voluntarily connected with each other outside of their Tuesday weekly meetings.

In December, Baptista and Isabel Jiménez González, an English language professor at UCLM, presented the course along with student experiences at the International Conference on Visual Literacy and Digital Communication in hopes of implementing this program in other universities across Europe.

Sydney Utsey, a junior economics major, hadn’t anticipated the opportunity to work with native speakers when she joined the course.

“I was very excited and also very nervous because you know they’re native Spanish speakers,” Utsey said.

But each week, she found herself learning new things about Spanish culture through the exchange.

“I didn’t think I realized the lack of representation for people of African descent in Spain. One of the Spanish students informed us that there’s like a political party advocating in a way that’s racist and against minorities, I think that was my biggest shock,” Utsey said.

Liliana Menut, a third-year student at UCLM, said that although improving her English was a priority when she joined the course, it was not the only reason she took it. She wanted the opportunity to forge a relationship with American students.

“I wanted to know more,” Menut said. For her, the program was a way to “be in contact with people who actually experience so much more than what can be learned from a textbook.”

Conversation students had surrounding Black History Month, Black Lives Matter, cultural traditions and more are examples of what González hoped for when she partnered with Baptista to participate in the program.

“We are very different, but this difference will make us closer,” Gonzáez said when asked why they chose to center the virtual experience around the Black Lives Matter movement. “Then if we want to talk about the language perspective, I think this is a very good opportunity for everyone to improve,” she said.