Breaking the Language Barrier: International Fellows host community events at Language Houses, promote engagement, inclusion, learning among residents and non-residents alike


Freshman halls have a reputation of being extremely close and forming strong bonds that often last long beyond students’ first years, yet most students never experience those strong bonds after their first year. However, some have the chance to live in Language Houses, which present the opportunity to be immersed in a language and culture outside of the English-dominant campus environment.

The College of William and Mary has language housing for students interested in Chinese, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Russian. In each of these houses, students live and study alongside peers also interested in that language. There are also Language House International Fellows in each different house. These Fellows are native speakers of the language of their house, and they tutor their students, plan fun events and immerse residents in the culture of their respective house.

Celeste Cabral, the Fellow of the Hispanic House is from Argentina; Claus Heinze, the Fellow of the German House, is from Münster, Germany; and Sasha Orlova, the Fellow of the Russian House, is from Moscow, Russia.

“We try to make it fun … something more fun than just grammar,” Cabral said.

The International Fellows’ main responsibility is tutoring their students, but they make sure to do so in captivating and interesting ways.

“We call [conversation hours] Russian Tea, and students can ask all the questions which they cannot ask during their classes,” Orlova said.

Movie screenings and game nights are also common methods of reaching out and immersing students.

“Through the events that we’re hosting, we’re trying to give them an insight into the culture and give them explanations to what are the concepts that are lying behind it,” Heinze said.

International Fellows are all very passionate about being able to teach students about their home cultures, but they also perceive their jobs as mutually beneficial.

“I was at a point where I really wanted to do something different and be abroad,” Cabral said. “I work in a human rights institution that has a study abroad program with William and Mary and they said there was there was this position where I could … apply, so I applied, and they selected me.”

International Fellows add a personal touch when it comes to the language immersion process, allowing for students to feel as though they are not only getting to know the language, but getting to know the culture of their Fellow’s home.

“I can give a perspective about something that’s not on the text,” Cabral said. “It’s a perspective I think we only have.”

Cabral’s experience as a Fellow has been a learning experience, not only for her students, but for her.

“I think that we are immersed in a totally different culture, and sometimes it’s like you’re the one that’s getting such an experience,” Cabral said.

Heinze feels the same way, and even came into the program with the intention of learning from students both inside and outside of the German Language House.

“I’ve been to the States before, and I perceive the U.S. as a country that has very good and very bad sides, and I perceive it as a very interesting place to work at,” Heinze said. “When I saw the offer, I was thinking about it, because I was into American Studies; therefore, I knew a bit about the States before and I’m trying to expand this knowledge. … I was given the opportunity to teach a little, which was very interesting to me. Looking into these curious, … sometimes confused, … sometimes alienated faces … every teaching experience is a surprise. I learn from them, I think it’s good learning in both ways, in both directions.”

Learning from students is one of the most rewarding parts of being a Fellow, but Cabral, Heinze and Orlova also find that teaching itself is one of the most important parts of their job. Orlova’s main reason for applying to be a Fellow was to share her language and culture with students around the world.

“I got my bachelor’s degree in Russian theology, but I decided it wasn’t enough to teach Russian students because I wanted to share my culture with students from all over the world; that’s why I got my associate’s degree in teaching Russia as a foreign language,” Orlova said. “I got this opportunity to come here and I’m really happy.”

The International Fellows appreciate the willingness of students to learn from and with them; the response from the student population plays a significant role in making the position special for the fellows.

“Students’ thankfulness is also very important,” Heinze said. “It’s something I treasure a lot.”

Putting on events is another way the Fellows are able to connect and educate their residents on the culture of their respective nations. The German House will be putting on an event to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Hispanic House will be hosting a carnival party that will mark the beginning of carnival season in Colon. Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration of life celebrated in Mexico, and the Hispanic House will be having a celebration of their own Nov. 2.

The language houses are meant to be inclusive, whether or not a student is majoring in the specific language of a house.

“I think that there are many residents who are not majoring, are thinking about maybe minoring, but wanted to live in a language house because the environment is more like a community than in other dorms,” Cabral said. “Others have heritage that they want to recover or keep in touch with the culture.”

The Fellows believe there shouldn’t be boundaries up to students outside of the houses or languages.

“I think they are and should be open to everyone,” Heinze said. “I always tell [other students] about German events. … I think there’s no boundaries.”

Language House events are open to all students to promote a community of inclusion and a celebration of culture on campus.

“Our language house is open for everyone, all kinds of people attend our events, and that’s how it should be,” Orlova said.


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