First-ever Tufts Undergraduate Spanish Language Conference offers a space for students to present original research

Tufts students are presenting at the inaugural Tufts Undergraduate Spanish Language Conference that showcases foreign language study and intellectual curiosity among the Tufts student body. Sophie Dolan / The Tufts Daily
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The inaugural Tufts Undergraduate Spanish Language Conference was held on April 10 over Zoom. The conference featured student presenters from Spanish 22 and above.

Typically, there are limited chances for undergraduate students studying a foreign language to present original research in a conference-style format, and with COVID-19 preventing large groups from meeting in person, such opportunities have been more scarce than ever. Last Saturday’s conference presented a unique opportunity for students and professors to come together to reflect on and rejoice in the topics that students have been learning in their Spanish classes throughout the year.

The conference was organized by senior Alex Martin, fall 2020 graduate Emilia Charno and junior Hannah San Sebastian, with the help of Spanish department Lecturer Patricia Smith and Senior Lecturer Kathleen Pollakowski.

During the fall of 2018, Martin, Charno and San Sebastian were encouraged by Smith to participate in the Worcester World Languages Undergraduate Conference at Worcester State University. At the conference, the three students presented projects that they developed during their Spanish 22 course on the Spanish Civil War. By the train ride home from the conference, the three students were already thinking of ways to bring a conference of this kind to Tufts.

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“It was really great to have the opportunity in a humanities subject … to have the same premium put on presenting original research or original investigations to your peers,” Charno said. 

From the spring of 2019 onwards, Martin, Charno and San Sebastian began to consider what a foreign language conference might look like at Tufts. By late spring of 2020, the three students began meeting regularly with professors Smith and Pollakowski over Zoom, which is when they started to truly formulate their vision for the conference. The group solidified the final details and recruited guest speakers and presenters for what would become the Tufts Undergraduate Spanish Language Conference.

The format of the Tufts conference was inspired by the Worcester World Languages Undergraduate Conference in that undergraduate students presented original research in front of a live audience. However, differing from the Worcester State conference, Saturday’s conference was completely virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Martin acknowledged that adapting a large, in-person conference to a virtual format was a challenge, but it also had its benefits.

“I do think there are things that have been made slightly easier by the virtual format,” Martin said. “We don’t worry as much about finding a physical location that can accommodate everyone, we don’t need to worry about how our guest speakers are going to get to the conference for the day.”

Both Charno and Martin also explained that presenters, who were all Tufts students, were comfortable with presenting in a virtual format given their experience using the platform in virtual academic courses. The conference featured one main Zoom room and presenters took turns sharing their screens in order to present their projects.

There were 26 students who presented at the conference. The presenters spoke in Spanish about work that they developed in one of Tufts’ upper-level Spanish courses or research that they conducted with a professor. Each presentation was related to one of the conference’s five panels, covering topics such as medieval and Golden Age literature, modern literature, historical memory, health and creative videos.

In addition to organizing the event, Martin, Charno and San Sebastian also presented their own work at the conference.

Martin and San Sebastian’s presentations were a part of the panel on modern literature. San Sebastian’s presentation was titled, “La expansión de la literatura canónica puertorriqueña,” or “The expansion of Puerto Rican canonical literature.”

Martin delivered a presentation titled, “Revelar la propaganda franquista: Surcos y La Colmena,” during which he spoke about an essay he wrote that discussed the film “Surcos” (1951) and the novel “La Colmena” (1943), exploring how these works sought to deconstruct the propaganda present during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in post-Civil War Spain.

Charno presented independent research she conducted with her major advisor on the health burden of COVID-19 on Indigenous communities within Peru. Her presentation, titled “El impacto de la COVID-19 en comunidades indígenas en Perú,” discussed the history of healthcare for Peruvian Indigenous communities, as well as what factors contributed to disproportionate burden during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following each student presentation was a discussion of the student’s work, during which the panel’s designated moderator helped to guide conversation by asking leading questions. Smith moderated the panel on historical memory, and Pollakowski moderated the panel on modern literature.

Smith outlined some of the talking points that moderators used to spur discussion. For example, a moderator may ask students about why they chose their topic or their research process.

In addition to student presentations, the conference featured two guest speakers. The first guest speaker was Celeste Kostopulos-Cooperman, Ph.D., professor emerita of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Suffolk University, who gave a presentation titled, “La traducción: un intercambio cultural,” which covered the impact of translation and cultural exchange.

The second guest speaker was Pedro Palou, Ph.D., who is the chair of the Department of Romance Studies at Tufts University. Palou delivered a presentation titled, “Las fotografías de Juan Rulfo,” which explored the photographs of Juan Rulfo, a Mexican writer, screenwriter and photographer.

Charno discussed what impact she hoped that presenting original work and listening to the other presenter’s research projects had on students.

“I hope that people feel more comfortable presenting their research in Spanish,” Charno said. “I know that the level of instruction at Tufts is really high, but this feels like a very unique opportunity for students to be able to gain … confidence in public speaking [and], particularly, confidence in presenting their own work and doing it in a language that might not be their first … On more of a pandemic note, these days I find all the more comfort and happiness in things that bring people together.”

Martin agreed with Charno, adding, “I hope that [the conference] sparks a real passion for [students] and that it shows them some of the possibilities of what you can do with another language.”

He also explained how attending the Worcester Foreign Languages Conference as a sophomore had a major impact on his academic journey at Tufts.

“The conference at Worcester was actually what pushed me to choose a double major in Spanish,” Martin said. “It was that experience and being able to share my own research and feeling like there’s an academic community in which I can engage in this passion of mine.”

Professor Smith explained that she believes conferences of this kind give students skills that are not only important for the study of the Spanish language, but any field of study.

“[The students] felt [the conference in Worcester] gave them more confidence,” Smith said. “Hopefully [the Tufts Undergraduate Spanish Language Conference] will do the same thing for the students who are participating [and give them] the assurance that ‘yes, I can go on and do this,’ not just in Spanish, but in whatever field they pursue.”

In addition to being a valuable experience for students, Pollakowski added that conferences of this kind are equally rewarding for professors, as she herself always feels very proud to see students’ hard work pay off.

Looking forward, Charno and Martin expressed that the Tufts Undergraduate Spanish Language Conference is an event they hope will continue in future years.

“We are leaving a framework and tools so that future people and future generations of students will be able to carry on this tradition,” Charno said.

Part of this framework is that the conference has its own website. Charno hopes the site will act as an “information hub,” and will include recorded sessions of the presentations, as well as opportunities for future engagement with the conference.

Martin explained that the group hopes the conference will include other languages and students from other universities in the coming years.

“One thing that I loved about the Worcester conference, that we debated doing for our own conference, although ultimately with COVID we just decided it was easier to limit it [to Tufts students], was to have some exposure to students from other universities who are also Spanish majors and also students who were taking Portuguese or French or German or Russian,” Martin said. “I think that in the future, especially if it’s in person, that is something that we would like to do.”

Charno agreed with Martin and is optimistic about the future of the conference.

“We fully expect and hope for [the conference] to evolve to involve different schools and different languages,” she said. “It’s really cool what can happen when people come together, or rally [around] things that they’re excited about, and I just know that there’s such enthusiasm for language studies at Tufts, and rightfully so, because the professors are really wonderful and so are the curricula. We are quite happy with how [the conference] is coming together and really look forward to where it will go in the future.”

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