Spanish programs rally, raise major numbers

After hearing the relieving news, the Spanish and Spanish education professors, including Dr. Santiago García-Castañón, department head of modern foreign languages and Spanish professor; Dr. Mark Couture, associate Spanish professor, rejoiced at the news that their programs were saved.

However, García-Castanón did not celebrate for long as he went straight to work in writing an action plan to keep his program away from any type of cut list in the future.

In May, a program prioritization task force released a report, which stated the programs they felt should be discontinued at Western Carolina University. The task force, co-chaired by Mark Lord, interim associate provost, and Vicki Szabo, who took the late Provost Angi Brenton’s place, looked at several factors, including the number of majors enrolled, cost of the program and graduation rates. Programs were rated a one, two or three based on their factors. Programs rated a one are considered as excellent; programs rated a three were presented to Chancellor David O. Belcher for discontinuation at WCU.

 Programs listed for possible discontinuation were a minor in women’s studies, a minor in broadcast sales, a bachelor’s in German, a bachelor’s in Spanish and Spanish education, a bachelor’s in motion picture and television production, a master’s in mathematics and mathematics education, a master’s in music and music education, a master’s in teaching English to speakers of other languages, and a master’s in health and physical education.

Out of the 13, Spanish, Spanish education and motion picture and television production (now known as film and television production) were spared. Cut programs, announced in Belcher’s final report in July, immediately became “inactive,” and enrolled students have the option of “teach out,” changing programs or finding a different university with their desired program.

Although Spanish and Spanish education survived, Belcher wrote unsettling comments about the programs in his final report.

“The profiles of these two programs are weak at best,” said Belcher. “Performance metrics across the board are passable but unimpressive. Nonetheless, I strongly believe these programs have enormous potential, particularly in light of the burgeoning Latino population in our region and state. The long-term viability of programs in Spanish rests in the capacity of leadership at the program, department and college levels to achieve two goals: 1) to re-envision these programs as dynamic degrees which are responsive to the applied needs of the Western North Carolina region, and 2) to generate robust enrollment, retention and graduation profiles. The action plan should reflect these goals.”

García-Castañón and Couture wish to prove the statement wrong by creating an action plan to build stronger programs. The action plan was in a draft stage during interviews with García-Castañón and Couture by this reporter, but the final draft of the plan was submitted on Nov. 1. Once the plan is finalized, Garcia-Castañon believes it will be implemented in the 2014 spring semester.

“The most important point is a plan for growth of the program, in terms of number of students not growth as the department or the faculty, to increase, to make our program more attractive, more appealing,” said García-Castañón, who is in his seventh year at WCU. “And, perhaps [we can] do a better job at ‘selling’ in to the students, marketing to them, basically getting the word out about the benefits of having a Spanish BA, which can be conjectured with another major.”

The faculty of the programs began immediately to recruit more majors by talking to Spanish minors and appearing at Valley Ballyhoo in August.

“We have already started [recruiting], in addition to whatever is in the action plan that we have been writing, we have to carry it out,” said García-Castañón. “And, we have done that, and we have seen a substantial, amazing increase in a couple of months. So, we are on the right track.”

García-Castañón believes, like other program directors, Belcher and the task force, that the key lies in the numbers.

In August, Belcher said, “Western Carolina’s program prioritization process has taken place against the backdrop of a North Carolina higher education funding model, which is in transition. In recent years, enrollment growth has been the primary source of increased state funding through a biennial process of enrollment forecasting. Until recently, institutions which failed to achieve their enrollment targets were held harmless; that is, they kept the funding based on enrollment targets they did not achieve. The held harmless approach, however, is no longer used.”

He continued to explain that low programs numbers hurt the amount of state funding Western Carolina receives. With the economic crisis and the hard hits of low budgets to education, Belcher cannot take the risk of saving programs with low enrollment, retention and graduation rates.

“A decision to discontinue a program does not imply a lack of value for the discipline. It is, rather, a statement about the current program reality,” Belcher stated in August. “We do not have the luxury of offering quality programs, which do not enjoy student demand.”

He added, “It is therefore imperative that each program at Western Carolina University own the responsibility for its own achievement of enrollment, retention rate and graduation rate goals. The program prioritization process has revealed weaknesses in these areas.”

García-Castañón and his faculty recognize this need and are addressing those points in their action plan.

“Basically, it all boils down to numbers, and we are a small program,” said García-Castañón. “The idea is that we should grow, and we have tried to come up with a plan to do something.”

Before the program prioritization, the Spanish programs showed less initiative in pursing students to declare a Spanish major. However, García-Castañón changed that approach immediately.

“In the past, we were not as aggressive as we have been recently. So, we had students come to us to declare a Spanish major, but now we go to them, and we remind the students, even at the lower level, about what they have to gain by having a major in a foreign language,” said García-Castañón. “Also, we target our minors. We have a very sizable, a good number of minors, a very healthy number. We have been more vocal with our minors and found how long it takes for them to upgrade from a minor to a major. Of course, they can keep whatever major they have to begin with, and a Spanish minor becomes a second major.”

Couture, who teaches several different types of courses and is one of four Spanish professors, including lower level language requirements, believes that students may be unaware of how learning a second language is important and vital in today’s society.

“I think there is the perception that you are not marketable with a Spanish degree,” said Couture. “We need to do a better job conveying the idea that Spanish is valuable as an ancillary specialization, that a double major is easily doable in four years, and that the ability to speak Spanish can make you a more valuable employee in many fields.”

García-Castañón said, “There is a need for Spanish teachers, even in this little corner of the region. I occasionally get approached by principals from schools in the area asking if we have someone who has recently graduated whose cable of teaching Spanish. And, that’s even without me advertising anything. I believe it’s in demand, I should say high demand. . . There will always be a demand for teachers, especially foreign language teachers, and this is the demand worldwide.

“A thorough knowledge and fluency in the language,” he continued, “will increase your employability, your ability to do things you couldn’t do without that knowledge. We had a graduate years ago who did her BA in Spanish, and she went to medical. She happens to use the Spanish degree she got here to communicate with people. So, the traditional notion that the only career is education or teaching has to be challenged because there is much more than that.”

Couture agreed and mentioned the importance of teachers like García-Castañón.

He added, “As far as Spanish goes, students in the BSEd track and others doing a BA share a common curriculum. Obviously, we need to make students aware of the demand for Spanish teachers in the region and of the high rates of placement for our graduates.”

García-Castañón explained the hardships that students perceive learning a language involves.

“To some people, first of all, languages are challenging to learn. . . A language is a project that will be a lifelong journey, and it’s challenging,” García-Castañón. “It’s very rewarding when you can communicate with people of another language, but it doesn’t happen overnight. . . We live a society which we value the immediacy of things. We want the reward happening immediately. With languages, a high dose of patience required because, as I said, it’s a lifelong journey.”

In order to make the program more “attractive,” as García-Castañón stated, he is implementing course additions.

“We have also created some new courses we are trying to offer, a more attractive curriculum,” said García-Castañón. “Courses, sometimes, can get a little bit outdated with the contents of the courses. . . As we move forward, the profession changes, the dynamics of society change, so we have to take that into consideration.

“Traditionally, most of the upper level courses have to do with literature,” said García-Castañón. “We are trying to offer courses in other disciplines related to the language but not just literature, like culture, linguistics. . . So, we will be able to offer – we have a search going on right now for a professor of Spanish linguistics – and we hope that with the new hire we will be able to offer these new courses without giving up completely the literature courses.”

With these course additions, current and future Spanish majors will have the opportunity to choose different aspects of the Spanish culture.

Based on the action plan and recent rise in Spanish majors, García-Castañón, Couture and the rest of the Spanish faculty believe the strong programs will become stronger and more eye-catching to freshman and upper level students.

Garcia Castanon stated, “We have to get our story out. We have to ‘sell’ ourselves better.”

While the chancellor has not sent us any notes, we understand that he has put the responsibility for saving our program in our own hands,” said Couture.

Other modern foreign languages include Japanese, Cherokee, German and French. All of these languages offer only minor degrees.

For more information on the Spanish programs, call 828-227-7241. For more information on the program prioritization task force and the cut programs, go to and read our articles titled “‘Don’t cut my program,'” “Belcher announces program cuts, 3 programs saved” and “Bye, bye programs: Belcher explains decision.” To read the final decision report, visit