Multilingual Living at McTyeire International House

Friday, November 30, 2012

By Deanna Matheuszik

If you happen to wander into McTyeire International House during the dinner hour, be prepared to hear anything but English. Instead, you will hear conversations in up to eight languages–Chinese, Spanish, French, Japanese, German, Russian, Italian, and Portuguese.

McTyeire, which opened in 1981, offers students the opportunity to engage in a foreign language and explore different cultures in a residential environment. McTyeire’s 97 rooms house sophomores, juniors, seniors, and a few exchange students, like Pedro Torreão from Brazil—the first exchange student from Vanderbilt’s consortium with the University of Florida and the Universidades Federal do Rio Grande do Sul and Pernambuco. Also resident are coordinators for each language hall–usually graduate students who are native speakers of their hall’s language. The McTyeire program is not just for foreign-language majors, but is open to students from all majors and schools who are interested in improving their foreign language skills and learning about other cultures. Many students who live in McTyeire are either preparing to study a semester or year abroad, or have recently completed a study abroad program.

When McTyeire welcomed its first cohort in 1981 it offered four language halls—Spanish, German, French, and Russian—but the number of language halls has evolved according to student demand. [1] Japanese and Chinese halls were added in 1995 and 1998, respectively; the Russian hall was discontinued after a drop in student participation following the dissolution of the Soviet Union until renewed interest in Russian emerged several years ago. Since 2005, McTyeire has offered an English-language International Interest Hall for students who want to discuss political, social, and cultural topics. And though there are currently not enough students to support an Italian or Portuguese hall, professors from the Italian and Portuguese departments occasionally have dinner with residents who also speak those languages.

McTyeire residents commit to speaking their respective language at the mandatory dinners held Monday through Thursday in the McTyeire dining hall. Hall coordinators periodically invite faculty, graduate students, or a campus visitor to join their students for dinner and discuss topics of personal or professional interest. Students also get a chance to practice their language skills during the hour-long weekly study break. “Students come up with an activity that the whole group can do together that involves the culture of our hall,” says Candace Criswell-Moore (BA ’14), who is part of the Chinese hall. “We’ve done fun activities like making bubble tea, or building a story in Chinese where one person says a sentence, and the next person adds on with another sentence.” Other study break activities include playing games like charades or hangman, discussions with a special guest, presentations from residents who recently returned from study abroad, or watching a television show or movie in their hall’s language. [2] Students also take advantage of campus programs like International Lens movies or special events like “Do Deutsch,” a week-long initiative sponsored by the German embassy.

In addition to the hall-specific activities, McTyeire holds a variety of dorm-wide activities like the “Do You Love Your Neighbor” icebreaker at the beginning of the semester, weekly fireside chats in the lounge, the annual International Dessert Night (for which each hall makes a culture-specific dessert for fellow residents), and Halloween and Holiday parties. Individual halls also host activities for fellow residents like salsa lessons, aikido demonstrations, painting Russian nesting dolls, or celebrating events like Oktoberfest, Mardi Gras, Fiesta Latina, the Chinese New Year, or the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival. [3]

For the past sixteen years McTyeire has been led by Anja Bandas. A native of Frankfurt, Germany, Bandas also serves as the German hall coordinator. Fostering student dialogue in a foreign language is challenging, especially since participation is not graded, and students’ language abilities vary. “We have to be creative,” says Bandas. “You want to keep the bilingual students entertained, but you also want to get the beginners to speak.” Motivating students to participate in dinner or study break discussions is not about standing on the sidelines cheering them on, but using a variety of teaching techniques to encourage participation. At dinner, for example, students might share what they learned that day in class, or the hall coordinator might provide a topic for discussion.

Continually speaking the language is key to McTyeire’s educational success. Just because a student has a good grasp of grammar does not always mean he or she is able to communicate in a foreign language. But whereas students may be self-conscious about speaking in class, or be reticent about asking the instructor questions, at McTyeire residents quickly learn that it is okay to make mistakes. Knowing that they can trust fellow residents not to judge their efforts creates a safety zone that maximizes their ability to learn from each other and for beginners to improve their command of colloquial expressions from more advanced or native speaking residents.

When it comes to mastering a foreign language, “the biggest difference,” according to Bandas, “is how outgoing people are, not what their language abilities are, or what their knowledge about a topic is.” [4] For Bandas and the hall coordinators, one of the joys of working at McTyeire is seeing how students mature from year to year both as individuals and in their ability to speak in a foreign language. “Some students who were more than shy at the beginning, in their senior year they were the social hub!” [5]

The bonds of friendship and community at McTyeire are particularly striking. There is a great sense of ownership on the part of the students: many students who come to McTyeire remain for the remainder of their time at Vanderbilt or return to McTyeire after their year abroad.

Last year, several alumni attended a reception celebrating the 30th anniversary of the opening of McTyeire International House. John Higwood, remembered fondly by fellow McTyeirites at the reception as the “surfer dude from California,” found the transition from the “left coast” to Nashville difficult during his first year at Vanderbilt. After moving into McTyeire, however, Higwood felt like he had found “a home away from home.” Kristin Whittlesey had a similar experience as a freshman in the early 1990s. Her floor at Hemmingway Hall had a large group of freshman who were pledging a very traditional Southern sorority, and having grown up in a multi-cultural environment in Washington, D.C., Whittlesey said she was “a fish out of water, and I just wanted to go home.” To her delight, she met people living at McTyeire, and “they were cool, they were interesting, they were like the people I had grown up with.” Whittlesey not only ended up living at McTyeire for the rest of her college career, she stayed in Nashville and recently became the communications director for Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music.

This sense of community is visible in many McTyeire traditions, including traditions centered around two very unique amenities at McTyeire – the wood-burning fireplace (for burning notebooks after finals )in the lounge and the outdoor volleyball court (for playing games in the rain). The fireplace and volleyball court are considered such integral parts of McTyeire’s identity that when Vanderbilt contemplated installing a gas-powered fireplace during the 1992-3 renovations and razing the volleyball court to create a parking lot several years later, McTyeire residents launched successful petitions to keep both features for future residents to enjoy.

McTyeire

The McTyeire community is multi-generational as well: several residents met their future spouses at McTyeire, and these unions have produced what are known affectionately as “McTyeire babies.” McTyeire alumni, such as Jonathan Sawyer, who have pursued a career in teaching a foreign language also have increased the McTyeire community by encouraging their students to attend Vanderbilt and live at McTyeire.

The bonds of friendship developed at McTyeire last well beyond graduation. At the 30th anniversary reception Theron Corse, a Latin American historian teaching at Tennessee State University and the Spanish hall coordinator from 1990 to 1993, advised current McTyeire residents to stay in touch with the members of their cohort: “Hold on to these people, because if they are anything like our group, they are going to go on to live extraordinary lives, and you will want to know them.”


[1] “The building was planned for ninety-four residents, and the faculty-student selection committee had no clear idea beforehand how many students would wish to live here. Applications were received from 200 [students], more than twice the capacity of the building. … All available spaces were filled at once, with twenty-nine American students in the French group, twenty in German, twenty-one in Spanish, and ten in Russian. Living with them are a head resident and four program coordinators, all of whom are highly fluent in at least one language, and nine foreign students or other native speakers. … A library of periodical literature from a number of countries is provided. … The dining room serves an international cuisine, with national dishes varying from day to day.” Emmett B. Fields, “The International House is a New Adventure for Vanderbilt,” Vanderbilt Alumnus (Winter 1982): 2.

[2] Photo #1 in Historical photo file (students gathered in McTyeire’s lounge, 1996). Photo credit: Anthony Lathrap.

[3] Student ownership of the McTyeire program has a long history; in 1995, then-head resident Regine Schwartzmeier discussed the origin of the weekly fireside chats. “Students came up with the idea for the series about three years ago. That’s usually the way things start at McTyeire—students come up with a suggestion, and we try it out.” Quoted from Laura Millard, “Speaking in Tongues,” Vanderbilt Magazine (Winter 1996): 24. Schwartzmeier currently teaches German at Belmont University. Historical photo #2. Photo credit: David Crenshaw.

[4] “McTyeire’s multicultural community often inspires residents to become fluent in more than one language. Former head resident Haifa Abbott majored in French, studied Spanish, and is then tackled Italian. She lived in McTyeire for three years. “I’m becoming very international,” she said. “Many students here are fluent in more than one foreign language. Sometimes it’s as simple as the influence of all the other cultures around you. Maybe one night at dinner, you think to yourself, ‘Hey, I’d like to go sit at that table.’ But to do that, you have to be able to speak their language.” Laura Millard, “Speaking in Tongues,” Vanderbilt Magazine (Winter 1996): 23.

[5] “International social hours, a McTyeire tradition, provide a weekly forum for lively exchange and are open to the Vanderbilt community.” (1996) Photo credit: Anthony Lathrap.

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