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Student demands surpass language offerings at Mills

Wellesley: 11. Smith: Nine. Mount Holyoke: Six. Vassar: Nine. Amherst: Seven. Pomona: Six. Oberlin: Ten. Mills: Two. The numbers are hard to deny – while other liberal arts colleges of similar size offer language courses covering everything from Chinese and Russian to Italian and Arabic, Mills offers French and Spanish.

When did Mills become the exception?

A quick look at Mills’ history shows how the college’s attitudes toward languages have changed over the last century. In 1910, every Mills student was required to learn Greek and Latin as well as either French or German. By 1960, the classics were replaced with Italian and Spanish. In 1990 Italian was gone and the German department folded a decade later.

But while Mills’ languages were disappearing, other colleges were responding to a growing emphasis on globalization that reached out to Russia, Asia and the Middle East. Slavic and East Asian departments bloomed alongside French and Spanish studies, and a resurgent interest in the classics over the past 20 years helped bring Latin and Greek back into vogue.

Many students at Mills feel the college is weakened by the lack of a strong language department.

“I think it’s shameful that a school that prides itself on its diversity and global awareness offers so few language opportunities,” said sophomore Kayla Isaacs in an e-mail. “Every student should be able to speak a second language in preparation for life in a globalized society.”

Louise Leck, a senior English major, also saw conflicts in Mills’ stance on diversity and lack of languages. “If we have diversity goals here at Mills, they should also support our understanding of … other cultures through language.”

And in a world that places increasing pressures on its college students to distinguish themselves from a growing pack of degree-carrying graduates, bilingualism has become a silent expectation if not a requirement. Many graduate schools require students know or learn a second language within the first year of graduate studies.

In some cases, Mills’ small language department impacts students in other fields. International Relations majors have only European language options even though many in the department study Arab, Asian and African countries.

Lauren Kong, a biology student, pointed out how connected languages are to travel. “If the College offered German, Arabic, Chinese … it would be easier for Mills students to both travel abroad … and connect with people from different countries,” she said in an e-mail. “It’s another opportunity to explore another culture.”

Mills offers study abroad locations in 76 different countries. Italy, Russia, Germany and China are among the countries where Mills students can find the most program options, yet some students are dissatisfied that their language studies have to stop once they return.

Blaire Kleeman studied German abroad but upon returning to America, “was incredibly disappointed that Mills did not offer the language that I have been studying since I was 12.”

Mills offers cross-registration at UC Berkeley, an option that is emphasized on the Mills website and in the Mills brochure. Academic advisors often tell students to cross-register to find courses not offered at Mills.

Kayla Isaacs, already fluent in Spanish, wanted to study Russian abroad. But because Mills only allows students to cross-register after they’ve completed freshman year, Isaacs couldn’t finish the two years of language required for all the Russian programs Mills offers. “Now that I am a sophomore …  I have unfortunately moved on to other opportunities.” She explained that biology labs left her little time to study Russian at a campus nine miles away. Even with a more frequent shuttle,  Isaacs said, “my heavy course load would probably prevent me from taking a language course anyway.”

Aside from the logistical challenges of cross-registration, recent budget cuts leading to course cutbacks across the UC system have left some Mills students feeling less confident that they can secure seats in already overflowing classes.

Freshman Shelby Duncan felt Mills falsely advertised its connection to UC Berkeley when she visited Mills as a prospective student.

Duncan wanted to study linguistics, and her faculty contact assured her that Mills offered Chinese and Arabic even though the College website showed no current courses for either. Her advisor told her that cross-registration at UC Berkeley would be an essential component of her linguistics major, which she would design herself.

“I was told that cross-registration at UC Berkeley was easy,” Duncan said.

But when Duncan showed up at Mills in the fall, she learned that freshman weren’t allowed to cross-register and that Mills had no Arabic or Chinese classes.

Duncan managed to get permission to study Arabic in the spring because her high school AP classes gave her sophomore status. Then her current advisor told her that she had to start talking to the language professors well before the registration date to assure her spot in the class.

“They want you to start talking to professors in early October, but the classes and professors aren’t posted for the spring until late November. You don’t have a chance to build a bond with UC Berkeley professors and show your interest.”

“UC Berkeley is already stuffed. They don’t have room in their classes for their students, so why is Mills continuing to say that there are spaces?” Duncan asked.

“That’s not a solid plan to offer students,” Duncan continued. “It’s not an honest exchange of information. If you’re honest with your students, they’ll create their own pathways to their success.”

Despite her frustrations with cross-registration, Duncan expressed praise for the Spanish department. “I think Borges is amazing. She’s a great person and truly passionate about speaking Spanish. She wants to work with each student to help them learn the way they learn best.”

Christian Marouby, professor of French studies, acknowledged that Mills’ two language offerings are below the standard in liberal arts colleges but emphasized Mills faculty had a strong interest in changing that.

“We are all coming to the same conclusion (about) places we compare ourselves to, in terms of size and endowment. None of the schools smaller than Mills have less than four languages,” Marouby said. “If we look at standards, we are at half at best.”

However, Marouby added, “I have a sense now that the faculty and the provost is coming to the same conclusion.”

Marouby cautioned that too quick an attempt to expand the language offerings at Mills could prove disastrous if it didn’t include proper long-term planning.

“It’s not going to be instantaneous, and it cannot be done piece-meal. The last time some attempt was made to have Chinese and Arabic, the attention was good, but there was no long-term support.”

Mills briefly offered an introductory Arabic course several years ago, but intermediate and advanced level courses were never offered and Arabic is no longer available at Mills. The College website still lists Arabic as a department.

Marouby said that a long-term plan for expanding languages at Mills does not exist, but that a committee had been appointed to look at other college models. The committee includes Wah Cheng, professor of history, and Fred Lawson, professor of international relations.

“We are… studying what other colleges are doing to have an idea, possibly to have a model, an inspiration. It also has to be adapted to Mills… It is in a way our task to produce a plan or a blueprint of what it might look like,” Marouby said.

Marouby links the expansion of the Mills language department with the arrival of a new president.

“We need to double (the languages). This is going to coincide with a new president. Everybody’s recognizing that this is a weakness. It would be great if we could present the new president with a plan that she possibly could embrace and seek resources for,” Marouby said.

Even if the new president threw his or her energy behind the plan, Marouby said the expanded Mills curriculum would not be available to students for awhile because the process of getting new instructors is not instant.

“It’s going to take a couple of years at least to get this going,” Marouby said. He explained that hiring instructors was a gradual process, because Mills needed to produce students interested in intermediate and advanced language courses before offering them.

“We don’t need the full funding for something like this in the first year. What we do need is the plan and the commitment.”

Marouby also stressed that any effort to seriously expand the language department at Mills had to have the support of the faculty, administration and especially the students. Without it, Mills runs the risk of foiling an attempt at expanding languages that could harm the department’s future, Marouby said.

“It’s important this initiative that isn’t just by the faculty, that its a college-wide initiative,” Marouby said.

And the idea of expanding the language department, Marouby added, is not simply the addition of new courses.

“We need a cultural change. Mills College needs to open up to the world. To bring in languages means to embrace other large cultural traditions of the world,” Marouby said. “When we bring the language, we also bring the culture and the literature that goes with.”

Even if Mills organizes to offer new languages, students closer to graduation would not be around to see the benefits.

In the meantime, students like Duncan are changing their studies to accommodate Mills’ lack of languages, but not without losses to their academic plans.

“I might’ve done study abroad and intensive Arabic,” Duncan said. “Now that I’m here, I’m leaning more toward International Relations.”