JEP Award for Community-Engaged Teaching and Research 2020: Mercedes Fages Agudo

Originally Published April 9, 2020

Interview with the award-winning Mercedes Fages Agudo

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and your work at USC? 

I am originally from Spain and I moved to the United Stated in 1995.  I started teaching Spanish in Boston, and I have since taught Spanish to students from all levels, from elementary to college. From language centers in Boston, to schools in Oxford, UK, and Nazareth college in Rochester, NY, Ohio State in Columbus, OH, and now USC. I am currently a Senior Lecturer in the Latin American and Iberian Cultures Department.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you do in regards to Community-Engaged Teaching and Research?

Since Spring 2014, I have been directing Feliz en Español, a community outreach program allowing students enrolled in level III and level IV Spanish courses to collaborate with an elementary school in Glassell Park called “Los Feliz Charter School for The Arts” (LFCSA).

This service-learning program provides students with the opportunity to share their language skills and talents with the children of LFCSA, while practicing their Spanish and increasing their awareness of a culturally and socially diverse neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Students prepare and teach Spanish classes at LFCSA during the after-school program.

Besides teaching, they complete written assignments in Spanish and English to reflect on their experience. At the end of the program, students are evaluated based on their on-site classes and written assignments.

In Spring 2019, I created Feliz en Glendale, a second community service based program, allowing Spanish language students to collaborate with John Muir Elementary School, which is located in Glendale. John Muir is one of nine elementary schools with a Spanish dual language immersion program called FLAG (Foreign Language Academies of Glendale). Feliz en Glendale allows USC students to assist primary classroom teachers during regular class time.

To date, 137 students from USC have taught 332 students from Los Feliz Charter School for the arts, and 14 classes at John Muir have already been part of Feliz en Glendale.

3. Can you tell us about your personal motivation and experience doing Community-Engaged Teaching and Research?

When I started my work at USC I was particularly interested in USC’s Diversity Requirement. I think our students need to come to terms with issues connected to diversity such as disability, ethnicity, gender, language, race, religion, or social class. As a Spanish instructor who consistently tries to connect language and culture, the idea of creating a program allowing our students to make exactly those sorts of connections seems very appealing.

I’m excited to continue with these programs because of the impact they have on students. At the end of each semester, participating students complete an anonymous survey that I use to improve the programs. I’m very encouraged by comments like the following.

“I learned that I can come up with things on the fly a lot better than I thought I could because the class required me to be a lot more alert and adaptive than usual.” Or “I think I learned how to better approach teaching and it helped me understand myself and others as well. I really enjoy teaching children because you realize how much they look up to “big kids”. It made me realize that I am able to make an impact in the community, even in a huge place like LA.” “I was initially very nervous about my Spanish abilities and about being in charge of a class of children, but gained confidence through the process and learned about leadership as well as teamwork” “I learned that I can manage a classroom environment if I come in not only with a plan but a set of strategies of how to adapt if things don’t work out. I recommend requiring that each student have a ‘back up’ activity for their lesson plans.”

For sure, practicing their Spanish is part of the experience, but in the process, they learn about themselves and the community they live in.

LFCSA families, and John Muir teachers also give us very encouraging feedback. Here is an example: “My daughter loves learning Spanish at LFCSA, the instruction is tailored at their level and the lessons are lively and interactive. She states, “the instructors are friendly and make the lessons fun. I enjoy learning Spanish with my friends.”” – 4th grade Annabella Sosa & Ms. Cristy Brizuela. In addition, I also think the elementary school students benefit from this program tremendously, they have a positive exposure to a new language, and they have college students working with them, showing them what they can achieve in their near future.

We all win with this relationship.

I learned that our students are extremely patient, compassionate, and resilient. I’m always very impressed by their dedication and hard work as well as their commitment and engagement. This led me to ask my department to support the creation of a community service award to recognize students who have gone above and beyond the expectations of the program. Since Fall 2015, we have presented awards to 22 students in both my programs and two new programs created by my colleagues.

[My favorite part about doing this work are the p]eople, both students and colleagues in my department and elsewhere in the university and the schools with which I collaborate. My colleagues in the department and the language director have supported the program in more ways than one. I collaborated with Dr. Stepanyan in the early stages of the program. Dr. Fiedler-Vierma has helped me read and provide feedback to our student’s lesson plans. Dr. Mesrobian has been a co-director for Feliz en Glendale since Fall 2019. The program could have not succeeded had my colleagues not helped me recruit students from their sections.

Susan Corban Harris from the JEP center has been an invaluable source of support and encouragement not only through her insights into service-learning programs but also through concrete technical support. There is, in addition, the people in the centers with which I collaborate, including principals, teachers, and after-school directors. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to develop the program and work with their kids. And last, but not least both the kids in those schools and the participating students who have made the experience so rewarding.

There are many memories, but two immediately come to mind. Having a student who comes back to be part of the program four semesters in a row even though he was not going to receive any credit for it. (thank you Hakop Ter-Akopyan ’18). Walking into LFCSA and have the kids spontaneously come to me to ask when Spanish Club is starting again.

Programs like these would not be possible without funding. I’m very grateful to my department for financial support with the costs for transportation at the early stages of Feliz en Glendale and to the PTA of LFCSA and John Muir for transportation funding in recent years. And, last but not least Dean Tammara Anderson for providing the financial support for all the Livescans every single semester.

This is a community-based program, and it takes full community’s support to run it. I am extremely appreciative of every single person that has been part of it.