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A strong support system for bilingual students

Enrollment in ASU's Spanish heritage language program has more than doubled.
October 15, 2019

Heritage program enables bilingual ASU students to explore Hispanic roots, succeed academically

College wasn’t even on Sergio Loza’s radar when a recruiter came to visit his high school in the mostly Latino, low-income neighborhood of Maryvale in Phoenix during his senior year.

“It's not like my parents didn't want me to go to college,” he said. “They were always supportive and gave me everything they were able to give me.” However, being immigrants who never attended college themselves, they had no knowledge of the process and what it required.

But when the recruiter asked Loza what he wanted to be, he said a doctor.

A skater kid who loved music and playing classical guitar, Loza had recently suffered a hand injury in a car accident that robbed him of his dexterity and made playing difficult. With that incident fresh in his mind, becoming a doctor seemed as good an idea as any.

Today, he is a doctor, though not in the medical sense. Loza recently obtained his PhD in heritage language pedagogy and sociolinguistics from Arizona State University. This month, he began work as an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, where he also will direct the Spanish heritage language program.

The same type of program exists at ASU — the School of International Letters and Cultures’ Spanish heritage language program — and it’s what Loza credits for much of his academic success. At only 28, he is the first graduate of the programThe school launched it in 2015 to better accommodate the needs of bilingual students. to be offered a tenure track position at a four-year institution. 

“It was eye-opening because I was surrounded by people who looked like me, who spoke like me, who had the same background as me,” Loza said.

The program made the first-generation college student feel at home in an unfamiliar place, gave him a support system and encouraged him to explore his bilingual identity and Hispanic roots.

In the five years since it was first introduced, enrollment in the program has doubled and new offerings, including online courses, have been added.

“One of the key features of this program is the opportunities students have to apply their knowledge in their local communities, either through service-learning opportunities or through applied projects that focus on helping students become aware and solve issues or problems related to Latino communities,” said Sara Beaudrie, associate professor and head of the program.

Beaudrie also served as Loza’s dissertation director.

“The most impressive fact about Sergio is his truly remarkable progress, which provides evidence of the fact that great futures can be forged when students are given access to education and the support they need to succeed,” she said. “His success speaks highly about the importance of ASU’s mission of access and inclusion and its impact to change futures.”

But Loza isn’t the only student to come out of the Spanish heritage language program swinging. Justice studies master’s degree student Azucena Martinez, another first-generation student, graduated in May 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minors in political science and Spanish. When she completes her master’s degree, she plans to enroll in law school and study human rights and criminal law.

Martinez said her experience in the program is the reason she chose that career path. A native of Yuma, Arizona, where she said Mexican American culture is so predominant that she spoke Spanish every day, Martinez noticed after coming to the Phoenix area to attend ASU at the age of 18 that she had gone entire weeks without speaking Spanish.

“I started to really miss home,” she said. “I became homesick for Mexican culture.”

When Martinez heard about the program, she thought it would be a good way to get her language requirements out of the way.

“But the more I participated in class and got to know the professors and students, the more I began to appreciate my own unique identity,” she said.

If her first realization upon moving to Phoenix was how much pride she had in her Mexican American background, her second was how unjust the legal system could be to her community.

“It was very common for my peers or family members to have run-ins with the law in Yuma,” Martinez said. “It wasn’t until becoming more educated about my own culture that I realized that’s not normal, that communities like mine are unfairly targeted and are suffering because of that. Now I can go back and help them better themselves.”

Loza wants to give back to his community, too. After changing his degree track from medicine to linguistics, he began to focus on the social implications of language, exposing power and inequity inherent in language biases.

One way language bias appears in society is in standard language teaching practices.

“We have the concept of standard Spanish,” Loza said. “But it's not a neutral idea. A standard is just a dialect that's preferred over others, and it usually reflects a specific community, a specific demographic, that draws privilege from that preference.

“And it's not just a Spanish thing, there's language discrimination in English as well. Standard English discriminates against dialects like African American English and Appalachian English, too.”

To demonstrate this, he conducted a study on standard Spanish language teaching practices for his dissertation at local community colleges. He found that instructors did indeed correct students who had learned Spanish at home for using colloquial phrases that standards considered incorrect but which were perfectly acceptable in everyday conversation.

Being chided for improper language when it’s how you’ve spoken your whole life can leave a bad taste in students’ mouths that sometimes results in them dropping the class altogether. And Loza knows all too well the misfortune of losing your first language.

He remembers when as a young elementary student, English-only laws were put in place in schools. Spanish had been his first language, but after it was taken out of the classroom, his skills in the language began to deteriorate.

“In a way, I was robbed of the opportunity to develop my literacy skills in Spanish,” he said. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just tweeted about how difficult it is being a Spanish speaker in the U.S. because you often feel like you're not good enough, so your bilingualism is kind of placed in this tug of war between the two cultures.”

When Loza finally took Spanish again in school, he said he felt like a “pocho,” a derogatory term for Latinos who lack fluency in Spanish because they’ve been taught to favor English. He doesn’t want anyone to have to feel that way anymore, and he believes what he learned in his dissertation study is a great place to start designing resources and workshops for language teachers to help them better understand the communities they serve.

Not to be overlooked is the sense of the camaraderie the Spanish heritage language program fosters — and not just among students but between students and professors.

“A lot of the professors came from the same places and experiences we did, so they understood the struggles we were going through,” Martinez said. “It didn’t feel like just another class, it felt like a cohort.”

Spanish instructor and assistant coordinator of the program Melissa Negron, who has been teaching courses in the program for about four years, hails from Puerto Rico, so she said, “I have some familiarity with being between two worlds. I grew up with both English and Spanish, and it’s a complicated situation.”

If it weren’t for the mentorship and guidance of Beaudrie, Loza said, he might not have stuck around in the program long enough to find his passion. Now he’s excited to continue his sociolinguistic research at the University of Oregon.

“I’m really fortunate because at the University of Oregon, their whole curriculum in their heritage program is oriented toward what I’ve been researching here at ASU,” he said. “I really feel like the School of International Letters and Cultures has provided me with all the necessary tools to succeed there.”

Top photo: Sergio Loza is an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, where he also directs the Spanish heritage language program. He credits the School of International Letters and Cultures’ Spanish heritage language program with his academic success. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Navrotsky comes full circle with opening of new ASU center

ASU has cut the ribbon on the Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe


October 15, 2019

Alexandra Navrotsky is back at Arizona State University and the ribbon has been cut to open the center where she will do her next great work.

Navrotsky will rejoin ASU as a professor, in both the School of Molecular Sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.  Professor Alexandra Navrotsky holds a sign for the opening of the Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe Professor Alexandra Navrotsky at the center's ribbon cutting ceremony. Photo by Mary Zhu Download Full Image

After leaving ASU in 1985 for Princeton University, Navrotsky officially returned on Oct. 1, 2019, as a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the recipient of many other honors. With many adventures behind her, she is now extremely excited to return home and continue leaving her mark on an institution very close to her heart.

“Alex will lead the development of the Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe (MotU), that will involve the School of Molecular Sciences, the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the Department of Physics and the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy and other engineering faculty," said Professor Neal Woodbury, director of the School of Molecular Sciences. "Materials of the Universe will bring together scientists and engineers to form cross-disciplinary research teams to expedite humanity’s next steps in understanding and exploring the universe.” 

“Building an interdisciplinary community of dedicated researchers who collaborate to make new discoveries and advance current understandings is one of our core strengths,” said Kyle Squires, dean of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “We’re excited to welcome Professor Navrotsky to our faculty. Her demonstrated leadership and expertise in the areas of solid state chemistry, thermodynamics and deep earth geophysics will be integral as we work with our counterparts to discover new materials and technologies.”

Materials define our very civilization: the stone age, the bronze and iron ages, the silicon age, and now, the age of complex materials integration. We made our first tools from rocks, and now we create complex materials that we doubt exist elsewhere in the universe — or do they?

Evolution over billions of years in diverse planetary environments may generate materials we know nothing about. The planets beyond our solar system reveal an ever-expanding diversity, from super-Earths and water-worlds to carbon-rich planets. Can a carbon-rich planet be a source of diamond, silicon carbide or some as yet undiscovered refractory material?

Can such materials self-assemble into natural analogues of composite ceramics and functional materials? Can processes in extreme environments concentrate elements that are difficult to find and mine on Earth? How do materials and their surfaces influence life, its origin and evolution? The universe is vast in time and space, and the permutations of planetary constituents seem endless.

“The study of materials and their applications from theoretical, computational, observational and experimental approaches is fundamental to so many areas of science and engineering,” said Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “The Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe is a bold, forward-looking initiative that will leverage ASU’s leadership in a broad spectrum of these areas. At the School of Earth and Space Exploration, we are excited to participate in this initiative that could have broad ranging implications for understanding the workings of our planet, solar system and universe.

“By crossing disciplinary boundaries, (the center) will naturally enable problem-based teaching in science education at many levels, preparing the next generation of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to sustain our nation’s prosperity,” said Professor William Petuskey of the School of Molecular Sciences who also directs the Advanced Materials Initiative at ASU. “Discoveries from the center will, in turn, inform materials science, where, more often than not, the finding of a new material with the right properties is the problem that impedes an innovation.”

The center's namesakes

LeRoy Eyring was an ASU Regents Professor of chemistry and a department chair whose instructional and research accomplishments and professional leadership at ASU helped to bring the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry into international prominence. Navrotsky is exceedingly grateful to Eyring for hiring her in her first faculty position and for his constant encouragement and support.

“I am returning to an ASU which is much more dynamic than the one I left in 1985, and I am coming home to the Southwest I love,” Navrotsky said. “The opportunity to help build the Center for Materials of the Universe and involve old and new friends and colleagues in it, as well as broader efforts in materials, is an immensely exciting new adventure.”

Navrotsky's research interests lie at the intersection of solid state chemistry, geochemistry and materials science. Navrotsky has published nearly 1,000 papers on topics ranging from oxide superconductors to silicates deep in the Earth's mantle. Her research is mainly focused on the structure and the stability of both natural and synthetic materials along with their dependence on temperature and pressure. She also investigates the role of nanomaterials in geochemical processes and in pollutant transport.

Navrotsky earned her PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Chicago, where she also earned her MS and BS. After two years of postdoctoral experience, she joined the chemistry faculty at ASU in 1969. Navrotsky joined the Department of Geological and Geophysical Sciences at Princeton in 1985 and served as the chair from 1988 to 1991. In 1997, she moved to the University of California, Davis and became an interdisciplinary professor of ceramic, earth and environmental materials chemistry. In 2001, she was appointed the Edward Roessler Chair in Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

Among her many awards, she has received the prestigious V.M. Goldschmidt Award from the Geochemical Society, the Roebling Medal from the Mineralogical Society of America and the Harry H. Hess Medal from the American Geophysical Union. She is also an Alfred P. Sloan Fellow and a fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the Geochemical Society, the American Ceramic Society, the Mineralogical Society of Great Britain and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Returning home to ASU

After returning to ASU, Navrotsky created, through the ASU Foundation, a gift and a bequest to support the advancement of materials science at ASU. She currently directs the newly formed Navrotsky Eyring Center for Materials of the Universe. Faculty and students with affiliations to the center will pursue and promote new ideas, discoveries and technologies in the broad field of materials, with an emphasis on planetary materials and processes; advocate for and seek new research and development funding opportunities; and provide outreach to expand these leading-edge fields. Funds may be used to support activities of the center with further cutting-edge research and education including, but not limited to, interdisciplinary postdoctoral support, graduate students and a program of seminars and workshops.

“The Materials of the Universe initiative will extend the range of conditions for new materials discovery to include conditions that exist elsewhere in the solar system or on exoplanets,” said Hilairy Hartnett, professor in both the School of Molecualr Sciences and the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “This initiative will also enhance materials science research that will develop new detectors and spacecraft materials to enable new discoveries beyond our planet.”

“In science as in life, every day is a new adventure!” Navrotsky said.

Karin Valentine of the School of Earth and Space Exploration contributed to this story.

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor, School of Molecular Sciences

480-965-1430