Walking through the doors of Lake Tahoe Community College this week is like taking a trip to a small Spanish-speaking enclave. Small groups sat around discussing Don Juan in Spanish Monday. Signs on the walls offered directions— in Spanish— to the banos. In the kitchen, a handful of students made paella.
“Es una maravilla,” Spanish instructor Nancy Zarenda said. “It’s a wonder.”
The college is celebrating the 20th year of the Intensive Spanish Summer Institute this week. With about 450 students in town for the five-day series, the school is abuzz with the language and culture.
“The institute is like experiencing a piñata,” Zarenda said. “It’s filled with anticipation and expectations, brilliant colors, high spirits, bursting with energy and overflowing with goodies, treats and surprises.”
Morning through evening, students at the institute choose from dozens of different classes, from sessions on Machu Picchu and Frida Kahlo to make-your-own tortillas and advanced Spanish grammar. Students spend hours each day surrounded by Spanish.
“I’ve taken a lot of Spanish classes,” student Peggy Dyslin said. “But last year, my first year at the institute, was the first time I’ve actually believed I could learn Spanish. The immersion concept really, really works.”
As many of the participants are interested in learning Spanish for a specific purpose, some workshops dive into use of the language in different contexts. There’s “Spanish for the Medical Profession,” “Street Spanish,” and classes on specific countries, artists and foods. But one thing all of the classes share is they’re expected to be fun for the students, ISSI co-director Maxine Alper said.
“We’ve developed it in a way that they’re not just sitting in a classroom being talked at,” Alper said.
A huge part of the institute is creating an atmosphere where Spanish is the norm, ISSI co-director Sue O’Connor said. That means decorating the college, inviting craft vendors from Spanish-speaking countries and involving dozens of local Spanish speakers.
“It’s five days of immersion,” O’Connor said. “They hear Spanish all day long. They speak Spanish all day long. They’re surrounded by it.”
The institute started in 1993 as a partnership between Lake Tahoe Unified School District and the college. Since then, the Community College Board of Directors has recognized the institute as an Outstanding Community College Program. California state superintendent of public education Tom Torlakson has also complimented the program.
“It just makes us so proud to be a part of this,” O’Connor said.
It’s not just a small group of organizers at the college that put the institute on, either, Alper said. From the hotels to the many local instructors, there’s a lot of people to thank, she added.
“I cannot emphasize that enough,” Alper said. “The whole college pulls together to make this happen.”