Holding classes, having office hours, hosting events and helping students with their conversation and grammar skills are roles that many students associate with professors, but all of these duties may also be required of language assistants.
These men and women work with the language departments to teach Wellesley students Arabic, Chinese, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Spanish. Each language assistant arrived at Wellesley through a different program, and as a result they each have different duties that are required of them. They also all come from diverse backgrounds.
Language assistants also take on roles beyond their professional duties. They are students as well as assistants and must find a way to integrate themselves into a culture that is often entirely different than their own.
As students, language assistants are required to take one class in any subject of their choosing along with other students. They may choose to audit additional classes if they want to.
Kaya Doi is currently serving as the Japanese language assistant. She was born in Nara, Japan but moved to the United Kingdom and then to New Jersey before moving back to Japan for her high school and university years. Doi graduated from the International Christian University this spring with a major in media and communications.
According to Doi, her role as both teacher and student can lead to an interesting dynamic with other students.
“When I’m with students, I have a strong sense of responsibility because I’m also the person who’s teaching them,” Doi said.
At the same time, she acknowledges that she wants to be approachable to students.
“I used to live abroad, so I myself have many struggles with Japanese. Even now I make mistakes, and in that sense I want to kind of be more like a sister than a teacher. I am in a teaching position, but I also want to be more of a kind of close person they can rely on or just talk to,” Doi said.
For Doi, the topics that professors can cover in the United States are different from the topics addressed in Japan because of different cultural norms. In Japan, awareness of LGBTQ related issues is increasing, but the topic is still difficult for many Japanese people to discuss.
There are also many social differences between the language assistants’ native countries and the United States. For the Spanish language assistant Nelia Losada Garcia, social life in the United States is very different from the social life at the University of Cordoba, where she graduated with a degree in translation and interpreting.
“I miss the social life. Our culture was built around social life. That’s why we have so many bars. Everything we do is around social life — that’s why we go out so much!” Garcia said.
All of the language assistants interviewed also pointed out that food at Wellesley is very different from what they are used to. However, in some cases, the difference lies not only in the food itself but also how people go about eating meals.
Costanza Barchiesi, the Italian language assistant, made this distinction. She is from Abruzzo, Italy and is currently in her second year at the University of Bologna where she is studying modern literature. She explained that American meals seem too rushed because in Italy it is normal to sit at a table and talk and share a meal.
“When I lived with my parents we used to do it every day for dinner, I mean, at least once a day, and then also with my friends in Bologna,” Barchiesi said.
Some language assistants had more trouble integrating into Wellesley’s culture than others.
Laura Tom came to Wellesley from Marseille, where she had just graduated with a B.A. in applied languages and economics, to serve as the French language assistant before pursuing a master’s degree. She has struggled a bit with integrating herself here.
“It has been difficult, and it’s still difficult to integrate myself at Wellesley. I feel like students already have their friends, especially American students. I have some friends but most of them are international — no, actually all of them,” Tom said.
Garcia, on the other hand, found it simpler to integrate at Wellesley.
“It’s true that there are some differences, but since the very beginning the professors have been super kind with me. And you guys are also very kind when you see me, ‘Hey Nelia! How are you?’” Garcia said.
Garcia points out that language assistants are not always completely knowledgeable about every nuance of their culture.
“We don’t know everything. We are simply native speakers. We don’t know how the government really works, or who’s going to win the next elections,” Garcia pointed out, with humor in her voice.
However, she still believes that language assistants are a great but underutilized resource.
“Having a native speaker in a university, that’s very, very valuable. In Spain, we complain a lot that the teachers who teach English are not natives. So, well done Wellesley, because we have 8 different language assistants,” Garcia said.