Last Friday I participated in one of the English department’s outreach activities, the English Festival. The department is tasked with making connections with local schools in order to promote its programs and get middle and high school students thinking about going to college. Sometimes these are serious events, but other activities are designed to be fun and to get kids excited about learning English.
This past week’s activity was one of the fun ones. Several local schools brought groups of students to campus to participate in the event. The buses arrived around 11 am and the kids and their teachers started wandering around the displays.
The English majors (in Pedagogy and Translation careers) had worked with their classmates to research and create stands representing US American culture in the decades of the second half of the twentieth century (1950s-1990s). Each group created informational posters and crafted little souvenirs that visitors could take home. The students dressed up in fashions from the era and explained what they had learned.
After the schoolkids had had the opportunity to check out all the stands and talk with the university students, they filed into an auditorium for the big finale: a music and dance show performed by our students. Each decade was represented by an English-language song or medley, with dancers and singers performing in costume with high energy. The students had been rehearsing for weeks to make this truly spectacular.
As a visitor from the country most represented in the performances, I was asked to be the MC. I co-hosted with two English major students who changed costumes for every decade (I got to stay in my own clothes the whole time…). We tried to make our explanations of the history brief, although I don’t think the kids really understood most of what we said. Nevertheless, with an accompanying slide show of images representing the iconic events of each decade, I hope that we were able to convey some of the spirit of the times.
When the show ended, the schoolkids were gifted a ‘colación’ (snack bag), which may have been the highlight of the day for some of them. They posed for group photos while the university students and professors cleaned up the auditorium and stands. By 12:30 pm, the whole event was over and it was just another day of classes.
What this event has helped me realize is that we are missing out on similar activities at universities in the US. I feel like (at least in my experience as a faculty member and graduate student in three different institutions) outreach is often left to the administration or to entities beyond the department level. At the department level, individual faculty members develop projects with schools and other organizations beyond the university campus, but it rarely brings the whole department together or engages as large a percentage of students as the English Festival did.
At UH Manoa, I have represented our department in university-wide promotional events where all the other departments and programs had similar booths, but other than a few volunteer students from each department, most of the information came from professors and program directors. The UDA English Festival, in contrast, gave the visiting schoolkids a chance to talk 1-on-1 with actual university students who were not that much older than themselves and to see that going to college and learning English could be fun. I realize that organizing such an event requires enormous inputs of time and money, particularly time that professors could be using to prepare their instruction or conduct research, but I feel like it might be a valuable investment if it convinces more schoolkids that they want to pursue our field because it is both fun and fascinating.