This semester, Wheaton College launched its newest major: Latin American and Latina-o Studies (LALS). As of the week of Oct. 18, 2021, students can declare the LALS major, and a new class entitled Introduction to Latin American and Latino Studies will be offered during spring semester.
The LALS major has been years in the making. Timothy Klingler, a 1993 graduate of Wheaton who has taught Spanish at the college since 2011, serves with Nestor Quiroa as co-coordinator of the program and has played a crucial role in the major’s development.
“[We] had been talking about a Latin American studies program since 2013,” said Klingler. “In 2019, the conversations expanded to include additional faculty colleagues, staff and students. There was a lot of excitement that came out of conversations, especially with Latina/o students such as Estefy Hernández, last year’s student body president.”
The LALS major is housed in the Modern and Classical Languages Department and includes courses from other departments across campus. According to the Registrar’s Office, courses that count toward the LALS degree include classes in the Spanish, Bible and theology, philosophy, history, music, and international relations departments. It requires 36 hours of coursework, 20 of which are electives in Spanish, history, anthropology, philosophy, and music classes.
While two Spanish classes (or Spanish competency) are required and nine others are elective options, they are not the main focus of the LALS major. This allows students to explore components of Latin American culture that they would not examine as extensively if they were a Spanish major or minor. To fulfill their eight elective hours, students can consult the Registrar’s Office list of classes across departments that focus on Latin America and/or the Latino diaspora in the United States, study abroad courses, and broader classes on the majority world or immigrants in the United States.
In addition to facilitating competency with the Spanish language, the description of the LALS major on the Wheaton website says the course of study will help students “understand and critically analyze historic conditions and major economic, social, religious, and political processes that have shaped—and continue to shape—the lives and cultures of Latin Americans and emigrants from the region.”
The major also requires students to study abroad in Latin America. Programs available to LALS students include the Human Needs and Global Resources program (HNGR), which places individual students into six-month internships with local communities worldwide. The Wheaton in Mexico program, a semester-long study abroad program in Querétaro, Mexico, is another option.
“We’re asking students to spend a significant time—at least a semester—in Latin America as part of their studies,” said Klinger. “We want them to have a deeply transformative experience in which they are shaped and formed by their time interacting with and learning from people in Latin America.”
The LALS coordinators are also open to new ideas regarding the study abroad program. In addition to opportunities in Latin America, Klingler said he is exploring the possibility of students studying within a local Latino community in the US.
“In the future, I’m hoping there will be opportunities for students to have a semester-long immersion experience in a US Latino community,” Klingler said.
Néstor Quiroa, an associate Spanish professor and the other co-coordinator of the LALS major, helped develop the major’s required coursework. He emphasized the need to include many interdisciplinary classes in the LALS major in order to accommodate perspectives from many departments and majors.
“In order to understand Latin America, you have to approach it from different perspectives,” said Quiroa. “There is an anthropological view that you need to have and a historical approach that you need to have and a musical perspective you need to have. Taking courses in different departments is the essence of the program.”
Some students pointed to the opportunity to take a diverse range of courses as a major factor in their pursuit of the new LALS degree.
“I’m not really sure exactly what I want to do professionally, so the interdisciplinary nature of the program really appeals to me,” said sophomore Ruthie Bovey, the first student to declare a LALS major. “I’m going to be taking anthropology classes, Spanish classes, Bible and theology classes and history classes. It’s a great feeling.”
The announcement also opens the door to the creation of future LALS-specific classes. With Introduction to Latin American and Latino Studies starting in the spring, new LALS courses are already beginning to appear on campus.
Sophomore Hannah Grawe is planning to declare a major in LALS instead of Spanish after learning about the new major’s focus on Latino culture. She found that the LALS program better aligned with her passions for Latin America.
“I wasn’t super interested in the old Spanish literature and everything else that comes with Spanish,” said Grawe, “so I really liked the idea of spending my four years on what I was actually interested in.”
Quiroa said he believes that the new major, with its focus on Latin American culture and the Latino experience in the United States specifically, aligns with the College’s “Christ-Centered Diversity Commitment,” which the Board of Trustees approved in 2019.
“The university has worked for diversity for so many years,” said Quiroa, “and I think that the Latin American and Latina/o studies program can be an important means to build the diversity that we have been trying so hard to attain. This program can be very effective toward this end because of the very nature of interdisciplinary studies within a liberal arts education.”
Klingler is hopeful that the major will help create a more hospitable environment for Latino students on campus, an effort that gained traction following the Unidad Chapel incident in 2019.
“A key impetus in creating the LALS program was a desire to extend curricular hospitality to students at Wheaton, specifically to Latina/o and Latin American students,” said Klinger. “When we looked at the curriculum, there were almost no options for engaging Latino realities and exploring Latin America outside of courses in Spanish. After the Unidad Chapel incident, I think there was momentum to make concrete steps to improve the Wheaton experience for Latina/o students and faculty.”
As the program begins to draw interest around campus, Klingler believes that simply having the LALS major as an option will encourage other faculty members to develop more courses that address Latin America and the Latino community.
“We anticipated that having a program would stimulate faculty colleagues to share their expertise in Latin America,” said Klingler. We’re excited to see several new proposals for Latin American-related courses already this fall.”
The LALS major is the first new major to be approved since COVID-19 hit Wheaton in March 2020. The program coordinators say they are grateful for the College’s approval in the midst of fiscal and logistical uncertainties due to the pandemic.
“It took a great deal of faith for the administration to decide to give us a chance in the midst of a pandemic,” said Quiroa. “I think this speaks to the plan that God has for the Latin American and Latino/a Studies Program. Now we need to work hard, persist and trust so that we will have a robust program in a few years.”
LALS faculty say they are hopeful students will take advantage of the new course of study. “Now,” Quiroa said, “the only thing that we are missing is the students.”