Professor Montalvo smiles for photoJonathan Montalvo moved to Indiana from Lares, Puerto Rico, when he was 15 years old. He completed high school there before attending Purdue University and then going on to get his master’s degree in Spanish literature from Western Michigan University and his PhD in Hispanic cultural studies from Michigan State University.

Applying for his current role as assistant professor of Spanish, he liked Graceland right away. He enjoyed both the size and the sense of community that was apparent from the beginning.

He was intimidated by the idea of being a one-man show — Montalvo is the only faculty member in Graceland’s newly transformed Hispanic studies program — but he also saw it as an opportunity; one he has used to nurture a fading program and turn it into a new major with invigorated life, new interest and an increasing number of students.

Montalvo first focused on his approach and introduced a more communicative style of teaching within the existing Spanish minor. He eliminated some classes, created new ones and merged others. He added courses like Hispanic Cinema and Hispanic Literature, which provide a more comprehensive approach to Hispanic studies than traditional courses like Spanish I and II. However, he didn’t stop at the classroom doors.

“You cannot base a program on the curriculum only,” stated Montalvo. “That is just the first part.” He says that what was missing, and what has since been added, is vision. “Now, this is more than just a language program,” he continues. “We are a program that cares to create global citizens and a program that allows students to explore other sensitive sides of them and create empathy. There’s so much more that we do in the program outside of the curriculum.” And he backs it up.

He has brought speakers to campus on related topics, he taught classes in the dark to bring attention to life as survivors of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, he started a Spanish conversation group that is open to anyone on campus, and he is organizing the second year of an expanding experiential learning opportunity in his home of Puerto Rico.

In this hybrid course, students spend the majority of the summer term doing their studies online. They then get to spend the final two weeks in Puerto Rico. Montalvo states that “it was very important to me for them not only to learn about Puerto Rican culture but also to serve the community.”

This was a timely initiative, as it coincided with Hurricane Maria, and, even though it felt like a last-minute effort, Montalvo thought, “this is perfect timing.” Five students — exactly the number Montalvo had budgeted for — took part in the course the first year. They were required to do readings on different aspects of Puerto Rican culture through their online curriculum in order to prepare for the actual trip.

Then, once there, they met twice per week to maintain momentum from their online readings, and they also did experiential learning activities and took part in a humanitarian project that helped build a playground for a rural school outside San Juan.

“I wanted to do it because I wanted to help Puerto Rico after the hurricane,” Montalvo recalls. “This coincided with my passion for my own culture, and it was all brought together by the opportunity given to me by Graceland.”

This summer, in its second year, more than twice as many students will take part in the experiential learning opportunity, now with two course options. They will once again visit the Puerto Rican school and continue the work the students began last summer. And, even though this year is still being finalized, Montalvo is already thinking ahead. He has hopes to create a summer camp for Puerto Rican students provided by his own Graceland students in the years to come.

All of this together has meant more opportunities for Graceland students, and they recognize it. When Montalvo first arrived, approximately a dozen students had declared a Spanish minor, and there were only about 20 students enrolled in all of the courses together that Montalvo taught that first semester. The courses were online, and Graceland didn’t have opportunities for these students to gain comprehensive experience through their chosen program.

Today, through the work Montalvo has done and the excitement his work has created, the number of students who now enroll in a single class has outgrown the 20 total students he had that first semester. And he’s not done.

This year, Graceland approved a new major in Hispanic studies to begin in 2019-20. Montalvo’s communicative approach combined with upper-division course offerings anchored in cultural studies makes the Hispanic studies curriculum distinctive from other higher education institutions that offer similar programs. This major is now much more than simply learning Spanish, and with a dynamic professor like Montalvo behind it, it’s certain there are more big things to come in this area for future Graceland students.

“ You cannot base a program on the curriculum only. That is just the first part. Now, this is more than just a language program. We are a program that cares to create global citizens.”


EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING During the final two weeks of the 2018 summer term, Montalvo and the students enrolled in his hybrid course helped build a school playground near San Juan.