The CUNY Humanities Alliance at LaGuardia Interview with Oriana Mejias Martinez
At LaGuardia since 2021, COIL Humanities Alliance Fellow Oriana Mejias Martinez is mentored by Olga Aksakalova, English professor and Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) program director. Pioneered by SUNY over fifteen years ago, COIL facilitates students’ global awareness, and cross-cultural/cross-linguistic communication through interactive online practices. Faculty residing in different countries collaborate on creating a shared module that is then embedded in their respective courses, and their students collaborate on the module activities virtually. Since the program’s inception in Fall 2016, over a hundred courses have benefited from COIL projects implemented in collaboration with faculty in France, Russia, Nicaragua, Morocco, Dominica, South Africa, Colombia, French Guiana, India, Mexico, Montenegro, Brazil, Japan, Egypt, and other countries.
A native of Venezuela, Oriana lived in Chile for two years before arriving in New York, in 2018, to enter the program of Latin American, Iberian and Latino Cultures program at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her doctoral research engages the roles of visual objects—newspapers, photography, film, art—in popular uprisings and the ways such objects contribute to and counteract national, historical, and cultural memory. In 2020, Oriana joined the Humanities Alliance. A speaker of several languages, she contributes her skills and commitments to the arts to the development of COIL’s multicultural and bilingual projects. “Photography and film and short stories make my heart beat,” she writes. “My dissertation is about Caracazo, a popular revolt in Venezuela in 1989. I’m analyzing how the visual work created during that period affected a historical memory.” At the moment, Oriana is an avid listener to Radio Ambulante, a podcast that tells the stories about Latin America.*
In the following excerpt, drawn from a longer exchange between Oriana and Michele Manoukian in spring 2023, she shares her current and past experiences as a teacher and researcher in the arts:
“The question of teaching has a lot of layers for me. All my life, I have been infatuated with teaching; I love the classroom and I hope to always teach. As a high school student, at least ten or fifteen of my classmates came to my living room, where I would teach English to everyone. I would teach chemistry; I would teach physics! It’s not that I felt that I was more than anyone, no; we were all in the same level in school. It was only that they struggled to learn some things. I was just glad to share how my way of thinking was leading me to learn the same things. Later, I taught Italian in the college I graduated from in Venezuela; in that way I became familiar with undergraduate students. Of course, college is different everywhere. With Olga, I’m getting a sense of what LaGuardia Community College is. In my country, we don’t have this type of institution; our system works in a different way. I’m grateful to be In New York where the student paradigm is so varied and diverse. And I’m older now; I’ve learned that in the classroom, instead of “teaching” students, you try to capture their knowledge and learn their purpose. By being in the classroom, they can also expand their own communities, families, and work life.
COIL represents a different approach to study abroad opportunities; these are two different experiences and situations. Put simply, our COIL goal is to pair faculty here with faculty abroad. Together they search for ways to combine their courses. It’s unlikely that partners are teaching the same course, but it’s nice when that happens because in their projects you can see lots of intercultural and multidisciplinary perspectives. COIL takes different forms on other campuses, like SUNY, for example, or in colleges in Florida. LaGuardia’s version of COIL stands out because of our international range of students and faculty. It is a multicultural campus, in a multicultural university in a city layered with all these communities in which people feel very comfortable, which is amazing. Personally, I think this is because of the food!
On the COIL website, there’s a little map of links to our partners from all over the world. For example, last spring, I assisted Professor Ariana Fernandez; she’s in the Fine Arts program at LaGuardia and teaches Latin American art. She was paired with Professor Cristian Salineros from Universidad Católica de Chile. Their hands-on project was beautiful. It was based on the art created by Latin American indigenous people who exhibit in museums. Students in their classes reinterpreted the objects, making art of their own, and then cataloging their work. In another project, Alcira Forero-Pena, a professor of anthropology in Social Science, partnered with with Sarah Bak-Geller (UNAM, Mexico) in the creation of a course on the anthropology of food. The result of that project is a recetario, a recipe book that grew out of students’ own knowledge. It was very enriching for me to assist in these courses. Sometimes students will resist if they don’t feel comfortable with other students, if they can’t communicate in Spanish, or if they don’t know English. In those moments, I set the resistance aside and served as a translator. These two projects point to the importance of multicultural development not only for students in community college but in all colleges. In this way, whether virtually or not, students expand their ideas with international peers who are interested in what they say and what they do and what they know. COIL brings bilingualism and multiculturalism into the classroom, expanding these individual experiences into a vision of what the world can be.
Participating in COIL asks a lot of the faculty, too. LaGuardia faculty are so open to bringing COIL to their own classrooms. It takes humility to open the door to another instructor and to another set of students. As a Humanities Fellow, I also attend college-wide COIL subcommittees; these are “behind the scenes” teaching spaces where faculty express the complexities in partnering with faculty from different backgrounds, as well as their gratitude that COIL enables multiple ways to teach their disciplines.
What do I learn from all of this? Thanks to COIL, I’ve learned that it’s important to open courses and classrooms as spaces in which everyone is involved, in which everyone really participates. Sometimes, as teachers, we think we have to do everything. But when you open some space, you will understand when and if students have ideas—sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, especially if they are not familiar with the topic. But in open classrooms, faculty discover how to truly reach those students. Every set of students is different, and teachers can change accordingly.
As a COIL Humanities Fellow, I’ve experienced the ways the Alliance, unlike any other space, fosters a sense of growth and dedication to understand the core of our teaching decisions and actions. As new members of the academy, we can ponder the social and professional implications of our roles in the system by being mindful and respectful of the ways we connect to the community we serve. I hope that social and political changes do not make public institutions of higher education disappear. Without public education, I wouldn’t be here. I hope that people realize the value of public education. Supporting it is worth the fight.”