UNCA language department tackles enrollment drop

Roy Inkidar
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Chair & Associate Professor of German Regine Criser shares her
thoughts on the challenges UNC Asheville is currently facing in the language department.

According to the UNC Asheville Office of Strategy and Analytics, enrollment in languages at UNCA has slowly decreased by about 20% over the past few years, but professors teaching in language departments remain passionate about their jobs despite the struggles that come with having fewer students in the programs. 
Members of UNCA’s various language programs created and implemented strategies to efficiently make the best out of their classes with the number of students they have, and keep the interactions between them and the students active.
Chair & Associate Professor of German Regine Criser said the language department plays a key role in creating the university’s image and brand as a liberal arts institution.
“I think at UNCA, there is still a strong belief that an education in language is a core element of what the liberal arts are. And I think there is also a good number of faculty and staff who understand our work toward diversity, equity and inclusion. A language education is a big part of being accessible and inclusive,” Criser said.
In order to graduate from UNCA with a bachelor’s degree, students must complete two semesters of a language class. Many students may take advantage of these opportunities to explore liberal arts ideas, going beyond the language graduation requirements by picking up a language as a minor, allowing for students to become more well-rounded in their studies. 
“We have fewer majors and minors than we have had in the past, I think we have more minor students than major. Even though we would prefer more students choosing a language as their major, more minors is also a great thing as it is an indicator that students are taking a major and combining it with a language. It is a strong combination for career readiness and focus,” she said.
According to Criser, learning a language is more than just words. It consists of culture and history — a large core of liberal arts curriculum — and cannot be exclusively taught through online applications.
“There is generally a belief that a language is something you don’t necessarily need to go to school for or that you don’t need to learn in a college setting because of apps such as Duolingo. Even though I recommend Duolingo to my students because it is a great practice tool, it is not going to teach you culture, it won’t teach you history. There is no engagement with another language learner, no direct interaction with a human being,” she said.
The language department has made many efforts in finding ways to attract students’ interests and get them more involved in language learning.
“We currently spend time as a department to think about our curriculum and about how we can recruit more students. How can we communicate and be more transparent with students by showing them what it means to be, for example, a biology major and a German minor, an art major and a Spanish major? I think these degree paths are beyond the immediate imagination of students,” Criser said.
Additionally, for German classes, Criser said the department has been implementing strategies such as mixing and matching classes of the same language in order to boost the dwindling number of students enrolling in these classes.
There is also an opportunity for building community, empowering the more advanced students to work with those with lower proficiency. So I think we truly tried to rise to this challenge and be as creative as possible so we can continue to really provide a top-notch and current language education,” she said.
Criser said encouraging words intended to inspire students to learn a language by introducing them to the benefits it brings with it and showing them a different perspective about it.
“Language is a currency. The more languages you are exposed to, the more value you add to your life. For example, many jobs don’t require knowing a second language, but having one is what sets you apart from others. Speaking a language and getting a degree in one comes with a skill set that allows employers to understand that you are mentally flexible and used to seeing things from a different perspective,” Criser said.
Similarly to Criser, Associate Professor of French and Francophone Studies Oliver Gloag said  having a language department is essential for UNCA’s education system.
“Offering a full range of courses in the humanities is at the heart of this identity. You cannot imagine a liberal arts college without a vibrant language and literature department, nor without a strong classics or philosophy department for example. Throughout this pandemic, it was great to see that the administration and faculty have shown their steadfast commitment to the liberal arts when it mattered most in a time of crisis,” Gloag said.
Gloag said despite challenges with enrollment, having in-person classes with a small number of students makes studying language much more efficient, as it allows for a fuller, more critical language learning experience.
“There is no substitute for the classroom experience, because the classroom experience is the closest thing to being in a country where the target language is spoken. When you are in a class with a native or near-native speaker from another culture, that is what makes you learn. What is integral to the college experience at UNCA is the transformative classroom experience. That’s what sets us apart,” he said.
It’s in-person learning, combined with devoted professors and engaged students, that Gloag said makes the UNCA language department so valuable and at the heart of liberal arts education. 
“Ultimately, learning about another culture, another language cannot solely be about interaction with a computer program. Learning about languages, literature, history and culture is not a science and cannot be done online exclusively because it is about human relations and human interactions. You need people. At UNCA, we have people. In the French section specifically, we have faculty who are single-minded in their passion to mentor their students and do everything they can to ensure the best post-graduation outcomes,” he said.
UNCA’s language department continues to make changes to allow for greater class enrollment and engagement with the student body. Gloag said the French department plans to combine language classes with curriculum from other degree areas. For example, the spring 2022 semester will feature classes that combine French with studies in religion, philosophy, English and women’s gender and sexuality studies.
Despite drops in enrollment, students in the language programs said they enjoyed their experiences learning from dedicated faculty. UNCA Junior Blake Noble said learning French provided an enjoyable education experience, even with challenges thrown the department’s way during the pandemic.
“I think the communication and community aspect is what I was really searching for and I fell in love with being able to communicate and express to other people through a different language and explore a different culture,” Noble said. “We have a great team of faculty within this department, and especially during the pandemic they truly stayed strong and made sure they could provide every resource that we needed for us to still succeed while not being in a classroom setting.”