Bethel Creates Spanish-Assisted Degree - First of Its Kind in the U.S.

Lissa Diaz

Last week, Bethel College began a Hispanic Initiative, offering bilingual adults a new option for obtaining a college degree. The Spanish-assisted business degree is the first of its kind in the United States and is geared towards Hispanic adults who have the ability to earn a college degree, but have stayed out of the classroom due to language barriers. According to the Pew Research Center, less than 15 percent of Hispanic adults in the United States have a bachelor’s degree.

Bethel’s Vice President for Adult & Graduate Studies Toni Steffensen Pauls, Ph.D., says the initiative is designed to bridge gaps in language skills, providing students not only with a bachelor’s degree, but also with improved English speaking and writing skills. When students begin the program, classes will be taught by Spanish-speaking professors and class discussions and assignments will be more in Spanish than in English. As students approach the completion of their degree, classes and assignments will be in English. All curriculum will be identical to what is taught in Bethel’s current business program.

“Being conversationally fluent in English is not the same as having academic proficiency in English,” says Pauls. “There are many people who are capable of understanding academic concepts and earning a degree, but because of the language barrier, there is a gap that seems impossible for them to overcome and they don’t consider the possibility of going to college. We want to help them unlock their potential by having a dual focus on teaching them the academic concepts as well as developing their English skills.”

The pilot program is being funded through a $10,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Elkhart County along with a $5,000 grant from a private donor. According to the latest census data, 15 percent of the Elkhart County population is Hispanic, with a total Latino population of about 29,000. Bethel hopes to eventually expand the program into St. Joseph County, and become a model to start Spanish-assisted degrees throughout the state and the country.

The initiative’s first participants include one student who has a good job at a local bank, but hopes a bachelor’s degree will give her new opportunities for advancement. Another student has an engineering degree from a university in Mexico, but has been working a blue-collar job for more than a decade because of communication obstacles. He hopes a degree from Bethel will open doors for him to put his engineering skills to good use.

“This is a win-win for our community, not just for these students, but also for local businesses,” says Pauls. “We’ll provide employers the opportunity to promote Hispanic workers who have already proven themselves as valuable employees, but who haven’t been able to move up because of the lack of a degree. We are helping to elevate opportunities for a group of individuals who represent an untapped resource in our community.”

Update: Nov. 3, 2017 - This program is temporarily unavailable.