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NMSU's online Spanish graduate program connects with students worldwide

More than 100 students from 41 states and six different countries around the world are attending New Mexico State University, enrolled in the only online master's program for Spanish in the United States.

New Mexico State University is home to the only online master's program for Spanish in the United States. Jeffrey Longwell, an associate professor in the Department of Language and Linguistics, advises graduate students in the program. (Courtesy photo)

Originally intended to fill a public need, the program has grown into an international community, and recently celebrated its first graduating class in December.

"To be one of the first students to graduate from this program feels somehow an honor, especially now, when it has a huge acceptance and popularity among many students from all over the world," Antonio Balart said.

Balart, who resides in Florida, emigrated from Cuba in 1991 and received a bachelor's in Spanish from the University of North Florida in 2005. He said he had applied to the graduate program to continue studying a language he loves.

"Also, as the only feasible way do it, due to the lack of a nearby institution that can offer something at that level," said Balart, a former substitute teacher who will use his degree to teach Spanish at his local college.

The College of Arts and Sciences program is designed for Spanish teachers in public and private schools and community colleges working to advance their careers. It also aims to prepare scholars who are pursuing doctoral degrees.

"When we started planning it, it was kind of a novel idea for us thinking about how we were going to do this kind of a program online," said Jeffrey Longwell, an associate professor of Spanish in the language and linguistics department and online graduate adviser at NMSU. "It kind of went beyond our wildest dreams."

Convenience may be one of the top reasons students choose online programs, but they aren't the only ones who benefit from the venue, according to Longwell. He believes the interaction among a larger and internationally diverse student body is beneficial.

"The general size of our online classes are 20-30 students in the class, so they're a little bit bigger, but the input and view points that we get are a lot more broad," Longwell said. "The input we can get with all the experience from all across the world makes it a better learning experience for the students."

At one point during a class, Longwell recalled that he had monitored more than 5,000 discussions between students and himself. He said students who don't normally raise their hands to comment in a classroom participate actively in an online setting.

Classmate Rosalia Henley, who is originally from El Paso but works in Phoenix as a deputy court manager, said she chose NMSU's program because she didn't have time to attend face-to-face classes.

"At first I didn't know what to expect, but as I completed courses I realized that my language skills were improving drastically due to the great communication between students and the professors alike through Blackboard discussions," Henley said. "I think without those discussions, my learning experience would have been a little different."

Henley received her bachelor's in Spanish from Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, in 2004. With her master's, she plans to pursue a career as an interpreter/translator.

The professors use an array of features to connect to online students. Typical features used in the course are learning management systems, like Blackboard, blogging and podcasts. Using Skype or live chatting sessions, the faculty holds virtual office hours.

"One of the things that is important is establishing the feel that there is a community, because one of the downfalls of online education early on, was that students were just out there, and we put something up there online, and expected them to do it just on their own," Longwell said.

The connection made with an international community has helped grow the program so much that admission has become competitive. Longwell said it demonstrates the need for more high quality online programs that reach students worldwide.

"I think it's put New Mexico State University on the map," Longwell said. "Because of our program, we're able to make professional connections with organizations we hadn't had before."

The program is currently working with the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, a national program that promotes the study of Spanish and Portuguese, to provide continuing education credits for its members.

"They have recognized us as being in the forefront of Spanish education and how things are moving," Longwell said. "In fact, they consult us on a regular basis as far as what some trends are, and what we think should be some things they should present in their annual conferences."

Additionally, Longwell said the education commissioner for the embassy of Spain recently contacted the department about creating a partnership in educating their teachers.

"They have an outreach program that involves taking U.S. Spanish teachers to Spain for cultural and language enrichment," Longwell said. "They were looking for a way to prepare these teachers before they got to Spain, so we're actually working with them to see if there's something we can provide."

College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean for Academics Beth Pollack, former department head of language and linguistics, came up with the idea for an online master's in Spanish in an effort to grow the department. Others who originated the program along with Pollack were Longwell, professor Patricia MacGregor-Mendoza and assistant professor Mark Waltermire. Today, all graduate studies faculty in the department teach one or two online classes for the program.

For more information about the online master's program in Spanish, contact Longwell at 575-646-2746 or visit http://www.nmsu.edu/~langling/MA%20Online.html.