Study Abroad program immerses senior in Mexican culture, language

Release Date: 8/2/2011

As Shayla Morrow's plane made its approach for landing in Morelia, Mexico, the University of the Ozarks senior knew she was in for perhaps the most challenging six weeks of her life. Little did she know it would also be among her most rewarding.

Shayla, a senior Spanish, English and secondary education major from Hartman, Ark., spent six weeks in May and June taking part in a Spanish language program provided by the Centro Universitario de Michoacan in Morelia, a state capital city of almost one million located in central Mexico.

Shayla Morrow at the top of the statue of Morelos on the island of Janitzio in Mexico.

Shayla Morrow at the top of the statue of Morelos on the island of Janitzio in Mexico.

Taking part in an immersion program is one of the academic requirements for students majoring in a foreign language at Ozarks. Years of taking Spanish classes in high school and college, studying text books and listening to tapes were put to the ultimate test as Shayla became completely immersed in both the Spanish language and culture.

“On my flight to Morelia, I reflected upon my years of studying Spanish at Ozarks,” she said. “I convinced myself that I was prepared for this trip because I had taken several Spanish conversation, grammar, and literature courses that were conducted in Spanish and often included native speakers as my classmates. However, I knew that this experience was much more important than any exam I had taken because it was putting my skills to the test. The first day was the most challenging because I had to transition into another culture and language in an instant. But, thankfully my preparation enabled me to quickly adjust and communicate sufficiently.”

Shayla took classes by day at the university and had her evenings and weekends free to get a first-hand taste of the culture. She stayed with a host family, making her experience even more enriching. She estimated that she spoke Spanish 98 percent of her time there, switching to English only to help her host family or friends with their English.

“Living with a family gave me the opportunity to continuously practice speaking Spanish and really experience the culture,” she said. “In other words, I spoke the language while sitting with the family at meal times, discussing the events of our day after classes, and I even practiced answering the phone in Spanish. These everyday scenarios provided me the comfort I experience at home and enabled me to enhance my Spanish-speaking ability.”

Shayla said that she’s had a desire to learn a foreign language since hearing other children speak Spanish on the playground in elementary school.  Tackling this new language is a challenge that she enjoys.

“It can be frustrating at times, but it’s very rewarding when you can get to the point where you carry on a conversation with someone in their language,” she said. “I pursue the study of the Spanish language because it is a passion of mine to be able to communicate in a language that is strongly recognized in the United States today.”

She said the immersion experience made her learn the language at an accelerated pace and, ultimately, provided her confidence in speaking a second language.

“When a person studies a foreign language in the United States, he or she will be exposed to the language in class, during homework, and occasionally at the supermarket,” she said. “Other than these locations, the student will not use the language because it isn't necessary; therefore, the opportunity to practice and improve is not available. When I was in Mexico, I had no choice but to use Spanish every day. Since I had to rely on the language to communicate my ideas or questions, slowly but surely the quality of my spoken language improved. Now that I am back in the states, I have much more confidence with the language than I had before I went to Mexico.”

Shayla said the challenge of living in a different culture for six weeks also gave her some insight and perspective on herself.

“Being away from my family and friends on this study abroad experience enabled me to focus upon myself and evaluate who I am as a person,” she said. “I learned that I can't be afraid to make mistakes or display weakness because if I don't, the lessons I learn won't be as meaningful.  When studying a language, you are going to make a mistake if it is foreign to you. And, when you make that mistake you learn from it and chances are you won't make the same mistake again.  I still don't have the entire Spanish language perfected, but I have greater confidence in speaking it because I learned from my mistakes along the way. As one of my professors would say, being fluent in a foreign language is not entirely possible because there are always new terms or vocabulary to be learned. ”

A new University program called the Academic Enrichment Fund offers competitive grants to students to support their research, internships and study abroad opportunities.  This program helped Shayla pay for the cost of the program and travel.

“With the money I received from the grant combined with the money I had saved on my own, I was able to have this experience of a lifetime,” she said. “If a student wants to go abroad but doesn't have the money, I would recommend that they talk with the financial aid office at their university. Without talking to the financial aid office, I would not have been aware of my options. Other than trying to save up personal paychecks to help fund the trip, the financial aid office is very knowledgeable about scholarship and loan opportunities that are available.”

Shayla will do her student-teaching in an 8th grade English class in Russellville during her upcoming senior year.  She plans to pursue a master’s of arts in language teaching in Spanish at the University of Missouri after graduating from Ozarks in May.

“The Spanish, English, and Education departments at Ozarks have greatly prepared me for career options I plan to pursue after achieving my degrees,” she said. 

And, those career options include a plan to one day to instill her passion for the Spanish language to other young people as a junior high or high school teacher.

“I hope my love for the Spanish language encourages confidence and excitement within my future students who choose to study Spanish,” she said. “Knowing the language and understanding the mistakes often made in learning it along the way will allow me to be an expert and also relate to my future students' misconceptions.”

Another U of O student, Micah Scroggins, also took part in the immersion program. Scroggins is a junior Spanish major and early childhood education minor, from Oark, Ark.

Shayloa Morrow with one of her teachers and a fellow student.

Shayla Morrow (left) and fellow U of O student Micah Scroggins (right) with one of their teachers from Centro Universitario de Michoacan at an overlook of the city of Morelia.