Determining which teaching methods are the most effective is up for debate now more than ever. Some say grades improve in “flipped classrooms” while others declare that true learning depends on the time spent engaged in course subjects rather than teaching students how to take a superfluous number of standardized tests. But while these strategies are numerous and often worthy of parley, few can contradict the power of studying abroad.
Dr. Frieda Koeninger, an Associate Professor of Spanish in the Department of World Languages and Cultures here at Sam Houston, agrees ardently with the latter.
Koeninger, pronounced like “vinegar,” teaches Spanish II 1412, the graduate course Spanish 5333, and coordinates the study abroad programs to Mexico and Costa Rica.
“[My job] involves teaching, but also visiting classrooms and getting in touch with students one-on-one to fill out the proper forms,” Koeninger said.
Surprisingly, Koeninger is not a native Spanish speaker, nor did she learn the language as a child. Born in Michigan and raised in Huntsville, Texas, she didn’t begin to learn Spanish until she entered high school.
“I thought it was just impossible, that I would never learn it,” she said. “The teacher would give us these long lists of words that didn’t make any sense to me, but the summer after that freshman year I stayed with a family in Mexico and that made all the difference.”
But teaching was always a part of her life. With four grandparents who were teachers and a father who was a professor at SHSU, Koeninger knew from a young age that she wanted to teach, even when she didn’t know what subject.
Now she had three degrees in Spanish: a B.A. from Sam Houston, a Masters from the University of the Americas at Puebla and a Doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin.
Koeninger lived for 25 years in Puebla, Mexico, where she married, raised a family, and for 10 of those years she taught at the University of the Americas.
Later she opted for a change and decided to head back home to Huntsville. Through friends and contacts here at Sam, she was able to come on a one-year lecture contract. Once the year was completed, Koeninger competed for a ten-year position.
Since then her job has expanded into the study abroad programs. For 14 summers Koeninger took students to Mexico, and now she has traveled to Costa Rica for five. The purpose of such trips is to immerse students in the Spanish language and culture.
“When you start out in a class it’s mostly reading and writing, but the reason someone learns a language is to communicate, so it helps if you’re immersed in real situations where you have to survive, to figure out how to say something or at least get it across in a way so someone can understand you,” Koeninger said. “It’s not just going on a tour or a cruise, it’s the best way to appreciate other cultures and meet people.”
Koeninger also arranges for students to stay with families in these countries because it deepens students’ connections and understanding.
CONVERSA, a language school in Costa Rica, completes the same task as well as offering students classrooms in which to take their courses in the Spanish language, literature, and culture.
“The owner [of CONVERSA] was in the Peace Core in the Dominican Republic about 52 years ago, and he and his wife started the school in Costa Rica about 45 years ago,” Koeninger said. “They’ve been there for so long, so they have a lot of experience with families in town.”
But studying abroad means so much more than sitting in a classroom. Koeninger’s trips to Mexico included visits to archeological sites, pyramids, factories, a number of history museums, and even churches, for their historical and architectural importance.
Costa Rica offers day trips to small, family-owned farms growing coffee, sugar cane, chocolate or pineapples. There, students could also tour history and art museums, hike with biologists along the rainforest floor, and even zipline through the canopies. Community service opportunities are available as well.
Classroom studies, no matter the subject or size or whether or not they are “flipped,” cannot compare to the experience of traveling abroad. Classroom studies can and often are forgotten, but traveling the world and becoming a part of a new an unfamiliar environment allows for students to grow and change, to remember and apply what they learn.
“There was a student one year [when we went to Mexico] who took Lysol and just cleaned everything with it,” Koeninger said. “He was sort of an awkward young man, but by the end of the month, he organized his own trip to see some pyramids. It was a joy to see him progress so much.”
Koeninger sees similar changes in most – if not all – of her students.
“Students don’t only progress in the language, but themselves too,” she said. “It’s an experience that changes their lives in unpredictable ways, and it gives me great satisfaction just to observe this growth and the meaningful friendships they make.”