Author Archives: Seaira Lett

Language is human!

When someone learns a language, their success is usually measured by whether or not they can have a fluent conversation with another speaker of that language. In order to get to this point, you have to spend a lot of time interacting with people, and many times those people come from different backgrounds. Studying Spanish has given me the opportunity to form meaningful connections with others, by practicing with native speakers as well as other Spanish students. As a result, I have gained valuable human relations skills, which will give me an advantage throughout my career.

When I went out of my comfort zone to order these tostadas in Spanish, I realized what it feels like for immigrants speaking English and being judged for not speaking like a native speaker

Majoring in Spanish has led to me getting hired as a Spanish teaching assistant in a private high school. Since this high school uses individualized lessons, it attracts students with learning disabilities. Through working with these students, I have been able to interact with different types of people and learn how to effectively present information to them. I have also learned how to be patient when I have difficulty getting students to understand lessons. I’ve found that the most effective way for students to study on their own is when the information is organized in tables so it maintains their attention. It’s also important to use a large font for students that have dyslexia.

Moreover, I have had the chance to work alongside a Spanish teacher from Colombia and assist her in creating lessons, which has allowed me to learn more about Colombian culture and Colombian Spanish. For example, Colombians prefer to say con mucho gusto instead of the expression for ‘you’re welcome’ that most are familiar with: de nada, which sounds less friendly to them.

Additionally, I’ve visited Stewart Detention Center with other Spanish students to talk to detained immigrants from Central America that don’t speak English or have family to visit them. I’ve gotten to hear about the tragic political situation in El Salvador from the voice of someone that is being punished for trying to escape violence, which has inspired me to help be a voice for immigrants in a country where English is the only language considered valid. Though their situations are unfortunate, they are always happy to have someone to talk to. It was an amazing feeling to be able to cheer them up with some light conversation about music or sports, topics we can all relate to.

I think that the most important part of learning another language is using the cultural competency and the human relations skills you gain to positively represent your country. I have been able to do this in both of these situations, while simultaneously improving my ability to speak and understand Spanish.

Why the Ford Foundation Fellowship is perfect for me

Personal Statement describing the applicant’s background and experience and commitment to the goals of the Ford Foundation Fellowship Programs by addressing all of the following that apply (abridged version):

  • Sustained personal engagement with communities that are underrepresented in the academy and ability to bring this asset to learning, teaching, and scholarship at the college or university level
  • Capacity to respond in pedagogically productive ways to the learning needs of students from diverse backgrounds and likelihood of using the diversity of human experience as an educational resource in teaching and scholarship
  • Applicants should describe their past and ongoing community service efforts such as: tutoring and mentoring students in challenging environments, participation in housing or public service projects, leadership and organizational skills that benefit a larger community, campus-based student activities, language teaching, involvement in professional organizations that serve the community
  • Applicants should note anything in their background that speaks to their unique perspective, such as: first person or generation in family to achieve college degree or seek advanced degree
  • Applicants may also cite the following: teaching methods and academic interests that are inclusive and sensitive to diversity, any successes that can be attributed to using new techniques to create an inclusive and respectful teaching and learning environment, personal goals, both long-standing and future-focused, that involve increasing understanding in the college or university setting and are in the broader context, employment that demonstrates a long-standing commitment to diversity and depth of understanding of a multicultural society, efforts to improve access and opportunity for all, particularly in one’s local community (neighborhood, place of worship, geographic region)

My experience as a Spanish learner has led me to engage with the Hispanic community in the US. I’ve always had a passion for Latin American culture, and I’ve always been conscious of the lack of resources in education for immigrants and other underprivileged groups. Only 63% of ESL students graduate from high school, and less than 2% of those students pursue a degree. These students are not given the opportunity to achieve their full potential due to their socioeconomic status and inability to speak English (Sanchez 2017).

Jocón, a traditional Guatemalan dish with indigenous roots

Furthermore, I’m currently working on an honors thesis on the grammar of an understudied Guatemalan language called Chuj. I was introduced to this language through my connection with the community that speaks it. In order to conduct my research, I interview native speakers of the language. Through my research I’ve formed relationships with people that belong to an underrepresented community, one that many people don’t even know exists in the US. One of my future goals is to bring more awareness to indigenous culture, which is one reason I have chosen to teach high school Spanish after I graduate. I want to use my privilege to be the voice for a group that very few are familiar with. My deep interest in indigenous culture has also drawn me to apply to the Ford Foundation Fellowship.

I’ve been accepted to be a high school Spanish teacher with Teach For America after I graduate, and I plan on simultaneously pursuing a master’s degree in education. Afterwards, I would like to continue the research I started as an undergraduate and pursue a PhD in linguistics. The experience I will gain as a teacher will improve my eligibility as an applicant for the Ford Foundation Fellowship, since it explicitly mentions education and teaching methods that cater to the needs of a diverse classroom. Teach For America emphasizes closing the opportunity gap that affects underprivileged groups, and therefore I will learn more about these groups and how to do my part to lessen the gap.

Additionally, I am the first person in my family to pursue a bachelor’s degree. My parents were never able to help me with homework or essays, and they knew less about the college application process than I did. I know what it’s like to navigate college applications on one’s own, and to be the only person in a group whose parents don’t have professional careers. I will be able to use this experience to guide other students in the process of applying for college when I’m a high school teacher, and for graduate school when I’m a professor.

Source: Sanchez, Claudio (Feb. 23, 2017). “English Language Learners: How Your State Is Doing.” Retrieved from:

What I learned abroad

Seaira Lett

The city of Granada

Studying abroad had a big impact on what I decided I wanted to do after graduating Emory, but not in the way you might expect. Before I went to Spain, I dreamed of living in a Spanish-speaking country and teaching English. However, after spending 6 weeks abroad, I realized that I personally am more interested in making a change through language education back home in the US. I want to help ESL students here that have a more urgent need to learn English, and I also want to advocate for Hispanic culture as a Spanish teacher to Anglo-Americans. I definitely learned a lot about who I am on my trip to Spain, and this realization was a crucial moment in my academic trajectory.

Furthermore, studying abroad is an amazing opportunity to become independent. After my program was over, I decided to stay in Madrid for a few days. I learned that it is very possible to navigate a new country and travel alone, which I now feel comfortable doing in the future. When I arrived in Spain, I didn’t want to take any chances with the metro because I was afraid of getting lost or worse, getting robbed, so I took a taxi from the airport to my hotel, which costed around 50 euros. On my last day, I felt much more capable of figuring things out by myself, so I did the research, dragged my luggage up a few hills, and took a train to the airport, which only costed about 10 euros. It ended up being a lot easier than I had originally imagined, and I felt empowered to be able to save money and get around on my own.

Churros con chocolate, the classic Spanish dessert

Studying abroad took me out of my comfort zone in ways other than forcing me to become more independent. I took a research methods class in which I had to survey Spanish people in the street, an embarrassing and frustrating task for a timid, 20-year-old girl from the US. Many people refused to participate, and a few took the politically-charged questions I had to ask as an attack on their country. Though not everyone was like this; my research gave me the unique opportunity to learn about Spain’s current situation through a primary source, and it was ultimately a positive experience. I’m even finding that I’m now more outgoing around people that I don’t know.

A mind-blowing art show projected onto Salamanca’s old architecture

I haven’t forgotten about one super important aspect of studying abroad: learning about another culture. I made it a goal of mine to fit in when I was in Spain, which of course didn’t happen on the first day. I assumed that my skills in Spanish would be sufficient to survive without using English during my trip, but I was faced with an obstacle: I was not familiar with any of the common ingredients or dishes eaten in Spain, so I couldn’t understand restaurant menus. There are so many words to describe ham that I had no idea existed! This resulted in me being given the English menu my first few trips to restaurants. However, during my 7 weeks in Spain, I picked up on these words, as well as more subtle Spanish mannerisms such as how to hold silverware, how to interact with retail workers, and how to dress, and in my last week, no one spoke to me in English.

I could go on and on about all of the incredible experiences I had on my trip to Spain, but my point is that there is so much you can learn while abroad, and a lot of it has nothing to do with where you go.

The magic of language

Seaira Lett

When I achieved competency in Spanish (though of course not perfection), I felt like a whole new world opened up to me; I could now understand so much more literature and music, talk to a whole new population of the world, and just experience things that I didn’t as a monolingual. I even had the opportunity to read Christopher Columbus’s first letter back to Spain informing about the Americas in its original language. Learning Spanish has had a huge impact on who I am today and has become an important part of my life. 

According to Emory University, a liberal arts education “is not technical training for a single field. Rather it’s an intellectual grounding in many fields… It’s a foundation for you, but also for society, preparing you to serve, lead, and—yes—change the world.” Multicultural and multilingual competency is essential in our diverse world. In order to serve and lead, it’s necessary to communicate, understand, and empathize with others, especially those who are very different from you.

We all have the responsibility of gaining this competency not only to comprehend other cultures, but to break stereotypes about our own cultures through cross-cultural communication. A well-known example is the stereotype that all Anglo-Americans are monolingual and uninterested in other cultures, so for one to learn another language subverts this view.

In my experience speaking Spanish in everyday situations, such as the check-out at a Mexican grocery store, people always have positive reactions, and many times it starts a conversation in which I’m asked how I learned Spanish. These interactions are especially important to me because after a short conversation you can shape someone’s image of your country or culture. By learning another language, you start a cross-cultural discussion, in which you connect with people you wouldn’t have otherwise connected with. This is precisely how we can change the world, by bringing different people closer together and forming positive relationships with them.

Native speakers of English have a privilege, since English is internationally considered a prestigious language, and publications in English dominate academic fields. In the US, other languages are devalued despite the existence of many communities whose primary language isn’t English. By learning another language, Anglophones can use their privilege to give a voice to cultures that don’t usually have a place in Anglophone discourse.

Studying foreign language and culture is crucial to any education. Along with the impact it ultimately has on the world, it will change your life. Not only is it incredibly fun and exciting (e.g. trying new food!), but it puts you in situations you otherwise wouldn’t be in. It brings you closer to so many different people. It constantly reminds you how big and diverse the world really is. Your perspective becomes much broader and you see things that you hadn’t seen before. You become much more empathetic and tolerant of others, and you develop a curiosity and a desire to learn, to try new things, and to see new places. It takes you out of your comfort zone and pushes you to grow, and through this type of experience leaders are created. Also, there is something magical about being able to consult foreign texts in their original words- whether it’s a pop song or an academic paper.

wach’ a k’ojlach?

I’m Seaira, and I’m graduating this spring with a major in Spanish and Linguistics. Besides Spanish, I’ve studied French, Portuguese, and Latin, and I’m currently learning Japanese. Also, I’m writing an honors thesis on the grammar of a Mayan language spoken in Guatemala called Chuj (the language in the title; it means ‘how are you?’). Through my research, I’ve been able to form relationships with indigenous people of Guatemala that migrated to the US a few years ago, and because of this I’ve been able to get involved in Latin American immigrant communities and see the issues they face. Therefore, a topic that interests me is immigration and the way that the languages of immigrants in the US are devalued. I’m really passionate about foreign language education of Anglo-Americans in order to combat this issue, and I’ve been accepted to be a high school Spanish teacher with Teach For America after I graduate. Thanks for reading!

Studying for my Japanese midterm!