A total of 13 seminarians from Wichita and surrounding states are taking an intensive Spanish program at Newman University this summer.
The program is an intensive Spanish immersion comprising two levels of Spanish — one in June, and another in July — from 8 to 11:50 a.m. Monday through Thursday. Seminarians will also complete a conversational "Spanish in Community" course, which includes dining with Spanish conversation assistants from the community.
“Learning Spanish changed my life, so being able to offer at least a little bit of opportunity to others to have the chance to do so is a blessing,” Assistant Professor of Spanish Sonja Bontrager said. “It just transforms your perspective, how you think about the world and what you’re receptive to.”
The program is based primarily at the Adorers of the Blood of Christ (ASC) Wichita Center but also uses classrooms in Eck Hall as needed for special activities. Bontrager will not be working alone. Wichita community members Lois O’Malley, CSJ, Michelle Hagerott, W. Michael Barton and Kristen Hock will each bring unique expertise and perspective to the program, Bontrager said.
“The ASC Wichita Center will allow easy access to their dining services, kitchen, grounds and other spaces conducive to immersion learning,” Bontrager said. “The seminarians will also have a full schedule outside of class, which will include Spanish language prayers, Mass, activities, host family time and excursions within Wichita´s Spanish-speaking community.”
The “Spanish and Community” class also gives seminarians time to visit with Spanish-speaking representatives from the community. A few of these individuals include Newman staff members Jeanette Ayala and José Montes, who act as “acompañantes,” or conversation assistants, to the seminarians.
As the program continues, Bontrager plans to take students outside the classroom, which she says will give plenty of opportunities for Spanish-speaking conversation.
“It’s not natural to sit at a table all day when you are trying to learn a language, so this gives them a chance to interact and get a change of space,” she said. “Everyone responds better when they are doing something that they like.”
“Monseñor Oscar Romero gave a Spanish quote that means ‘to feel with the people’ and to walk with them so that you get some empathy and insight into their experience,” Bontrager added. ”So these seminarians, by putting themselves in a situation where it is a loss of power because they cannot communicate in their own language, can get some insight into what the experiences of others, Spanish-speaking or otherwise, need to do when they come into our communities where English predominates. It’s a real chance to change the power dynamic in a relationship, in a way that can be very fruitful.”
In addition to class time, there are ample opportunities for Spanish immersion. Each seminarian is matched with a host family whom he will meet with throughout the program. Bontrager said this not only allows for a fuller immersion experience but also the opportunity to get to know the family and their experiences while speaking Spanish when they are together.
Other activities include cultural presentations and speakers, a field trip for “paletas” (a Mexican frozen treat), tours of a sweet bread shop and tortillaria, the option of attending a wedding at the Cathedral or even a quinceañera at St. Anne's Catholic Church.
“I’m hopeful that the intensive Spanish immersion program will have good fruit,” Bontrager said. “It is pretty humbling in the first round to get the pieces in order, and again, it couldn’t have happened without the collaboration of everyone — teachers and others — who have given their time. To hire people to commit this much time is a lot to ask of someone, especially those with families and children. Everyone has something else going on, so it’s quite the sacrifice — yet they are still here at 7:30 in the morning, every day Monday through Thursday. I am very grateful for their commitments and for everyone who has worked behind the scenes to make this program possible.”
In past years, the Diocese of Wichita has held a summer intensive Spanish program in Pittsburg, Kansas.
Associate Professor of Theology and Dean of Graduate Studies Father Joseph Gile said several Mexican sisters, who are known as the Guadalupanas, worked in the parish in Pittsburg and helped with the language instruction. Students were often placed in the homes of native Spanish speakers around Pittsburg and then joined together each day for class at the parish.
Gile said that, while this program is not entirely new, it is new to Newman.
“One reason the program is being moved to Newman is because of the new St. Joseph House of Studies, which houses undergraduate seminarians from the Wichita diocese who take classes here on campus,” Gile said. “The summer Spanish program is basically an outgrowth of the new House of Studies.”
“Most of the students are seminarians who have completed one year of graduate study in theology, but the summer Spanish program will not be just for seminarians,” he said. “The Bishop of Wichita, the Most Rev. Carl Kemme, will be taking part as much as his schedule will allow as well as the Vicar General for the Diocese of Wichita, Father David Lies, and some other priests.”
Gile said he hopes this experience of immersing seminarians in the program will allow the eventual priests to minister to the large and growing Hispanic population in the Diocese of Wichita.
Bontrager added, “It’s an honor to get to collaborate with the diocese in providing language training for their seminarians. I hope that this contributes to their being able to build strong relationships in Spanish-speaking numbers of their parishes — wherever they go— and that they will create a more united community.”