How Miami Dade College teaches students to learn, live in a bilingual world
Muriel Sarmiento was brought to the United States as a teenager with her immigrant family from Venezuela. She struggled in high school as she grappled with a new language and culture, keeping to herself because she was afraid of others making fun of her heavy accent.
Her school experience in the U.S. changed dramatically when she enrolled in Miami Dade College’s dual-language program, one of the few of its kind in the nation. Students can take several classes in Spanish, like biology or philosophy. The program is a part of the Honors College and is exclusively offered at the Eduardo J. Padrón campus in Little Havana.
“It is a very specific, niche program. You have to be bilingual. So we don't teach English, nor do we teach Spanish. And our whole goal is to have you stay bilingual,” said Magda Castineyra, former director of the Miami Dade College dual-language program. She is now the dean of the Honors College.
The Honors College wanted to create a program for high-achieving bilingual high school students who were uncertain about college — because they were recent immigrants, had low standardized test scores or weren’t sure what opportunities were available to them in U.S. higher education, according to Castineyra. It was launched in 2006 and accepts 75 new students each year, with more than 75 percent born outside the U.S.
High school dual-language immersion programs are found all over South Florida and the nation, but such programs are not so common in higher education.
Consider the fact that U.S. public schools, K-12, have more than 3,000 dual-language immersion programs, mostly Spanish, according to a 2021 surveyby the American Councils Research Center. Florida alone has 107 programs.
“There's this trope in our country that being American means English only,” said Melissa Baralt, a bilingual researcher and professor of psycholinguistics at Florida International University.
Castineyra said other colleges and universities have approached her to learn more about MDC's dual-language program.
“There’s a lot of interest, but I think it takes a lot of thinking to establish how they’re going to make it work in their communities,” said Castineyra, who said higher education institutions have been slow to incorporate dual-language programs.
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The Biden administration has taken an interest in expanding dual-language programs — at the elementary and secondary levels.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona spoke at length this week about wanting to see more students become multilingual, noting the United States is one of the few countries in the world that is mainly monolingual.
"Learning another, or multiple languages should be expected of our students and anchored as a skill that will enhance their global engagement and increase opportunities for success," Cardona told reporters in outlining the department's priorities for the year.
He punctuated his remarks in Spanish: "¡Ya es tiempo de aprender otro idioma!"
Castineyra says Miami Dade College’s dual-language program is “very high touch.” Their leaders aren’t just college administrators — they’re also coaches and academic advisors. Staff can identify with their students because many are also immigrants themselves, like Castineyra, who was born in Cuba.
Sarmiento said the first year of college was overwhelming for her and she often visited Castineyra’s office for mentoring and guidance. “I needed someone who actually knows what's going on to tell you that you're doing okay, that you actually have a future,” she said.
Freshman student Lucas Valderde, who moved to Miami from Peru specifically for the dual-language program, said the transition isn’t as tough as he first thought because he doesn’t feel like an outsider.
“Being here has made me a more confident person. I really believe I’ve been successful because of who I’m surrounded by,” said Valverde.
The Miami Dade College bilingual program has an impressive record. Nearly all students go on to transfer and graduate from four-year schools. Last year, three dual-language students — all of whom are recent immigrants — transferred to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Miami Herald profiled the three students last August.
Among the few U.S. colleges and universities that offer bilingual curriculum: the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, near the U.S.-Mexico border. It's much larger than Miami-Dade College’s program. It offers more than 485 courses that are either in Spanish or in both languages — like classes in biology or engineering — serving a student body that is 90 percent Hispanic. Miami-Dade is 75 percent Hispanic.
“For many generations, this institution, under different names, was not very affirming of our students’ cultural backgrounds. Although we are a very large HSI (Hispanic-Serving Institution), the teaching was still very typical of any university,” said Joy Esquierdo, director for the Center for Bilingual Studies at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Esquierdo said they’ve taken it a step further than offering classes bilingually and in Spanish.
“You can teach in Spanish and still have very traditional methods of teaching. And that's one step forward. But we're also working with faculty and bringing in culturally relevant, culturally sustaining pedagogies in the classroom,” said Esquierdo.
Esquierdo noted that students still have the option of taking every class in English, but they can take advantage of learning in a bilingual setting if they choose.
“If you want to be an accountant and if I want to have clients that are native Spanish speakers or work internationally, it behooves you to take some of that accounting coursework in Spanish. It's one thing to be bilingual, biliterate just in general. It's another thing to be bilingual, bicultural, biliterate in your field," Esquierdo told WLRN News.
Miami-Dade College and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley remain outliers in dual-language learning, even though the U.S. is home to nearly 42 million Spanish speakers.
“We could be doing so much more in terms of promoting bilingualism. Why we're not investing in this is truly beside me,” said Melissa Baralt, a bilingual researcher and professor of psycholinguistics at Florida International University.
Editor's Note: We changed a line in this story after publication to more accurately reflect the specific number of classes that Miami Dade College's dual-language program offers. The program offers five classes including biology and philosophy.