ON a recent balmy afternoon, students at Boricua College’s Manhattan center at 156th Street and Broadway sat outside the school’s main building and discussed the upcoming semester.
“Tienes mas clases de business este semestre?” one young woman asked another.
“Si,” her friend replied. “Tengo dos mas. Work, work, work.”
The fuzzy line between Spanish and English that exists on the street outside Boricua reflects the philosophy inside the 9-year-old school, one of two predominantly bilingual colleges in New York City (Hostos Community College in the South Bronx is the other), and among a handful in the nation. In a city with a 20 percent Hispanic population that continues to grow as new immigrants arrive from troubled Central American countries, bilingual education appears more critical than ever.
“Our goal is not to prepare people to be English speakers, although we do that,” explained Victor G. Alicea, the Puerto Rican-born president of Boricua. “We try to build confidence by separating the language issue from the intellectual issue.”
Dr. Alicea said that all too often students from Spanish-speaking families, whether new immigrants or longtime residents, are discouraged from seeking higher education because of inadequacies in English. At Boricua, a four-year private institution with another campus on Graham Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, students can enroll in everything from business administration to Puerto Rican heritage without being fluent in English.
The Boricua teaching model, believed to be the only one of its kind in the nation, revolves around a totally bilingual faculty, whose members conduct classes in English and Spanish simultaneously. While the texts and oral instruction are primarily English, students who are stumped on concept because of a language problem can seek help in Spanish. The teacher will answer the question in Spanish if necessary, then make sure the student understands the concept in English.
“This is a method of instruction that gets past the issue of language and focuses or the intellectual competency of students,’ Dr. Alicea said. “We want to train people to think. That can be done without a level of English that might get them into Columbia University” (though students must pass a proficiency exam to graduate).
Dr. Alicea, who is 44 years old, holds a Ph.D. from Columbia and taught at Columbia’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning before helping to open the Brooklyn campus of Boricua in 1974 (the name Boricua comes from “Boriquen,” the original name given to Puerto Rico by the Taino Indians). The school, which has grown from 26 students to 1,100 in that time and is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, is supported primarily by tuition (about $3,500 annually) and corporate grants. Its operating budget is $4 million.
The students’ average age is 28 and because most of them have jobs, classes are held in the evening. About 98 percent of those at the Brooklyn campus and 77 percent of them at the Manhattan center are Puerto Rican by heritage — half born on the island. Dominicans make up 18 percent of the rest, and there are small numbers of Colombians and other Latin Americans as well as Jamaicans and Haitians.
The school offers both a two-year Associate of Arts degree and a four-year Bachelor of Science degree, the latter in three fields: business administration, human services and elementary education. The school plans to open a computer laboratory this year to address what the school’s president calls “a distressing computer illiteracy in the Hispanic community.”
Pedro Medina, 43, a former truck driver who is a business student at Boricua, said he probably would not be in college today had it not been for an ad he saw about bilingual classes at Boricua. “I speak English, but not as well as I would like to,” Mr. Medina said. “To tell the truth, I was a little leery coming back to school. But here it is easy because there is always someone I can talk to when I have problems.”
This notion of support and friendship among Spanish-speaking students in an English-dominant city came up repeatedly in discussions with students and faculty members. Jose Gonzalez, 35, said he had left City College because “it was a cold atmosphere and I didn’t feel accepted.”
“Here I feel more proud to be Puerto Rican than I did before,” said Mr. Gonzalez, who came to Boricua fluent in English and wanted to improve his Spanish.
‘There is a strong cultural element to the linguistic issue,” Dr. Alicea said. “For example, to many people in this country, a French accent is considered chic, and a German one is even better — people think you are intelligent. But a Spanish accent is usually equated with intellectual deficiency, and people are treated that way.”
At Hostos Community College, part of the City University of New York, the philosophy is much the same, though the approach is slightly different. Its 4,200 students, nearly 90 percent of whom are Hispanic, can choose from many introductory courses that are offered in both in English and Spanish. Upper-level courses are in English only, although students with language questions may seek help in Spanish if the professor is among the 40 percent of the faculty members who are bilingual.
Introductory courses are taught in Spanish to enable first-year students to get started in their fields of interest without waiting until they master English. About 70 percent of the students take courses in English as a second language upon entering, and they must pass City University’s English composition test to graduate.
“We try to act as a point of transition for our students, most of whom are foreign-born,” said Flora Mancuso Edwards, the Cuban-born president of Hostos. “The support we give them helps with that transition — but it is only a help, not a crutch.”
About 40 percent of Hostos’s students are Puerto Rican; 30 percent are from the Dominican Republic, about 15 percent from other Latin-American countries, while the remainder are black native-born Americans and West Indians.
The average age is 26 and most students are heads of households supporting two or more children. Their average income is less than $8,000 a year, and more than 60 percent of them speak little or no English upon enrolling. Hostos offers associate degrees in liberal arts, science, business and health-related fields such as dental hygiene and medical laboratory technology.
The problems inherent in teaching adults in a depressed socioeconomic situation is reflected by the 35 to 40 percent dropout rate. Dr. Edwards stresses, however, that there is such a thing as “positive” dropouts — students who improve their skills and leave school to take jobs.
Dr. Edwards echoes many of the concerns of Dr. Alicea at Boricua, pointing out that linguistic and cultural handicaps are more severe for adult students than for younger ones. “Language and self-concept are closely related,” she explained. “If you are an adult and accustomed to being treated like an intelligent person in your treated like a 3-year-old because of language invalidity, that soon transfers to a personal sense of invalidity.”
As an example, Dr. Edwards told of a middle-aged Salvadoran man who enrolled at Hostos several years ago to learn English. In El Salvador he was a physician and a member of a university medical faculty; in New York he was a janitor. “I met him during registration day,” Dr. Edwards recalled. “In the middle of everything — the lines, the confusion, the frustration — he turned to me and said, ‘I really love this place.'” Puzzled as to why anyone would enjoy the bureaucratic nightmare of school registration, Dr. Mancuso Edwards asked the man why he was so happy.
“He said that for the first time since he left El Salvador people were talking to him as if he were an intelligent adult — not shouting at him as if he were stupid,” Dr. Edwards said. “I’ve never forgotten that. It should have made me happy, but it made me sad.”