Rebecca Farrin grew up naming the lambs in the field near her home in Idaho, but she never guessed that her future would lead her to working side by side with Peruvian immigrant shepherds in her home state.
Farrin is one of six graduate students currently enrolled in the new Master of Arts in Contemporary Hispanic Studies program at Oregon State University, and her master’s project is creating a documentary about the lives of the Peruvian shepherds she met while helping local ranchers in Idaho. The master’s program, which started accepting students in 2006, was created in the OSU foreign languages and literatures department within the Spanish program, and is aimed at students who want to combine language training with research that directly relates to Spanish-speaking populations in the state.
“From the beginning of the conversation, faculty wanted to go in a new direction,” said Juan Antonio Trujillo, an assistant professor of Spanish and linguistics, and graduate advisor of the program.
Instead of the traditional route of masters programs in Spanish, which focus on either teaching or literary criticism, the department wanted to create a program that respond to the changing demographics and increased needs of Oregon and the transnational communities being built between residents and Spanish-speaking immigrants. Trujillo and the faculty soon discovered that no other major university’s Spanish departments offered a similar program, so they ended up crafting one from scratch.
“We found this was a unique perspective,” Trujillo said.
“Our main foundation wasn’t language proficiencies, but in best learning practices. The students are engaging with the communities they live in,” said Susana Rivera-Mills, associate professor of Spanish linguistics and diversity advancement. “They learn and become engaged citizens. That’s why the program is so unique.”
Unlike other Spanish master’s programs, which prepare students for either doctoral programs or work in translation or teaching, Rivera-Mills said Contemporary Hispanic Studies presents opportunities for students to prepare for jobs with non-profits, and other organizations that work directly with Spanish-speaking immigrant communities.
Students must take credits in both Spanish and linguistics as well as cross-disciplinary classes in other departments. Currently anthropology, philosophy and other College of Liberal Arts programs offer courses that work within the framework of the program, but Trujillo and Rivera-Mills see opportunities in many other colleges, because Latino communities are important to disciplines ranging from family and health to agriculture to engineering.
Rivera-Mills said the program’s approach is a great match for OSU’s Strategic Plan.
“It maximizes student interaction with their community, and creates engaged members of a global society,” she said. “It relates to OSU’s mission in a unique and powerful way.”
In addition to course work, students must create a project that involves community and field research, and is ideally created with ideas from the community in question, rather than about the community. The goal of the project is to find practical applications to the skills they are learning in the classroom, and make students better equipped for jobs serving the communities they’re working with.
Farrin’s documentary project fits nicely into that mold. Because the shepherds she’s working with are from Peru, they have had experiences in the United States that are distinct from other Latino groups, and Farrin realized their stories were worth telling.
“I realized that these guys are living a lifestyle that very few people have access to,” Farrin said. She said she appreciated the kind of hands-on approach the program takes.
“When you’re going out into the community to carry out a project, and the person you’re interviewing says, “Yes, I’ve lost weight in the last six months because I haven’t had enough to eat,” you need to be prepared to confront your own feelings and figure out the best action to take. That’s why it’s great to have people with a lot of different backgrounds.”
Currently, the first two graduates of the program are both working with Spanish speakers. Octaviano Merecias has a job with OSU Extension doing work with youth in participatory media, while Claudia Forain Bolais is working with Linn-Benton Community College as an instructor, and with the Corvallis School District, assisting children enrolled in a dual-immersion program.
In the future, faculty hope to expand the program to 8-12 students, and want a combination of native and heritage speakers and non-native speakers, which will provide the kind of dialogue and broad perspectives that Farrin already appreciates.
“The educational system should mirror the equity you’re trying to find in the outside world,” Trujillo said.“We want to act out in our own space successful interactions we hope will take place in the community.”