Translating Success

One of the most diverse foreign language programs in the country is at a community college in New Jersey.
June 27, 2011

Many foreign language departments at four-year institutions have been threatened or eliminated in the past few years as administrators look to trim academic budgets. And language offerings are limited at many community colleges, which may offer Spanish and not much else. During these trying times, however, foreign language offerings have multiplied at Bergen Community College, a two-year institution in New Jersey that does not even require its students take a foreign language to earn an associate degree. What’s Bergen's secret? Professors say it's listening to student interest and speaking to them with one voice about the skills they will need in an increasingly global society.

Bergen’s World Language Program started when the college opened in 1965. It originally offered French, German and Spanish. Now, the program offers 13 languages -- American Sign Language, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Russian and Spanish. It offers associate degrees in eight of them.

Bergen’s foreign language program is second only to the program at Northern Virginia Community College in scope. About 1,680 students -- or nearly 10 percent of the total number of student taking credit courses at Bergen -- were enrolled in its foreign language program this past academic year.

Magali Jerez, who has been chair of the program for five years, has presided over most of its growth and transformation. In her time as chair, she has added seven languages to the program. And though a few community college have started to require foreign languages of their students -- associate degrees lag other degrees in requiring this -- Jerez said demand for language expansion came not from the institution but from its students.

“I looked at all of the languages offered at community colleges and four-year institutions in New Jersey -- especially those where our students transfer to -- and I saw that there was a big need for some languages we never had before, such as Arabic and Mandarin Chinese,” Jerez said. “Languages aren’t a requirement for a degree at Bergen, but they’ve become extremely useful for our students. The labor market is asking for graduates with language skills…. I had the vision and willingness to create a program where we could bring that to our students.”

Like Northern Virginia Community College, Bergen has a diverse student population, and Jerez said this has likely contributed to the interest in adding more languages. Only 48.1 percent of Bergen’s students are white. Hispanics are the largest minority group, making up 32.4 percent. Asian students constitute 10.8 percent of the population and black students 7.6 percent. Nearly 24 percent of Bergen's 17,197 students in fall 2010 were foreign-born. Korea was by far the top country of origin, with 719 students. But the college also had 389 students from Columbia, 349 from Poland and 221 from Peru. And the list keeps on going; there are students from more than 100 countries at Bergen.

But having a diverse population is only part of what has propelled Bergen’s foreign language program. Instructors at the college say they have found a way to show students that these language and cultural skills are important in a global society.

“We have a very diverse community,” said Tiziana Quattrone, Italian professor. “But it’s not only about what we offer to the students; it’s how we’re able to engage and interest them. We’re in a community that is global now, and we present to our students challenges that are global and interesting.”

Quattrone points to the Bergen’s robust study abroad program, a relative rarity for community colleges, and various cultural offerings on campus and throughout the community, such as concerts and drama presentations.

Bergen officials also point to budget cuts at nearby high schools, which have dropped language programs, as a significant factor in the growing demand for foreign languages at the college. Bergen has a dual-enrollment language program with two high schools in the area and is in the process of working with several others. Spanish is the most popular of these programs.

“I’ve gotten e-mails from various counselors at local high schools where they have cut language classes and they expect to cut more and more,” said Jerez, who said that nearby high schools have come to rely on Bergen to help fill the void for students who wish to take languages they no longer offer.

Bergen also caters to working professionals looking for retraining with flexible classes; it offers a Saturday-only program during the spring and fall semester. The college also welcomes many students from four-year colleges who take language courses there over the summer.

And in contrast to the grim news from institutions like the State University of New York at Albany -- which recently decided to downgrade majors in French, Italian and Russian to minors -- foreign language instructors at Bergen said their president has stuck by their side and is encouraging even more growth.

“I, personally, see the future for foreign languages as very bright,” said Mazooz Sehwail, an Arabic instructor. “I think people will only continue to be more and more interested.”


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