Foreign Languages Tutoring Department Oversees Change

Faculty, Staff, and Tutors Talk About Family, Culture, and Technology

by Daeyung Lee

One of the perks of being a CSI student is access to the free tutoring available on campus. However, attending tutoring has a negative stigma.
“I just didn’t need it,” admitted Freshman Ariana Xhelili. “But I would go if I did.”

Tutors of the Modern Languages Media Center take a break after a meeting for a quick photo opportunity.

Tutors of the Modern Languages Media Center take a break after a meeting for a quick photo opportunity.

Other students share Xhelili’s opinion on tutoring. But this is the sentiment that Director of the Modern Languages Media Center (MLMC), Valeria Belmonti, foresaw.

“Tutoring presents not only an opportunity to review grammar structures and vocabulary, but it also gives a chance for students to interact with native speakers, learn about those cultures and practice speaking skills,” said Belmonti. “It is important that they are aware of the wonderful resources available to them if necessary.”

But the MLMC tutoring lab is a different breed altogether when compared to ones in the Library, 1L, or the math department in 1S.
Upon entering the lab in 2S, students are met with opportunities to attend local events on campus, to join a foreign language club such as the Italian or Spanish club, and the opportunity to sit down with a tutor for a quick lesson in Spanish, Italian, French, Arabic, Mandarin, and American Sign Language (ASL).

Yet these tutors are different than the ones experienced in other labs. Sitting down with an MLMC tutor is akin to sitting down with an engaging professor, one who is knowledgeable on the basics of the language such as grammar and conjugation of irregular verbs, but is also familiar with the culture.

A trip to the MLMC is like a trip to a foreign country. The room is decorated with popular magazines from around the world. Tutors gather and talk international politics or compare American culture to other countries. Lab hours are scheduled and students take tests or complete homework assignments over the computer.

In a sit-down with these tutors the first thing that is notable is how close-knit everyone seems to be. Despite the various ethnicities and cultures they align to, they sit amongst each other as friends and colleagues. Each belts out the MLMC mantra towards tutoring: “repetition, patience, critical thinking.”

Talking amongst themselves, they reveal a common interest toward helping students. Further than that, they show their interest toward promoting the MLMC as a safe place. They assure everyone that the lab is a family, and they are committed to introducing students as members.
“I was born in the Dominican Republic, I came to the States six years ago,” said MLMC tutor Holdaliz Brito. “I’ve been back every semester since I was 16.”

Every tutor in the lab shares a story like Brito, on their background and why they dedicate their time to tutoring.

“A professor recommended me after they found out I used to work with kids in the afterschool program. I’m a native speaker that needed work on grammar. I started tutoring and it gave me an explanation behind everything,” admitted Brito.

Roa Harizi, a tutor for French and Arabic, recollected on her immigration to the US over four years ago.

“I wanted to use something from my country, I saw students failing, discouraged, and needing help,” added Harizi. “I felt that my help would lead them to finish the semester very well.”

The idea of helping others is central to the idea of tutoring. All of the MLMC tutors admit to feeling the need to push others and provide assistance.

“Helping students pass is important,” exclaimed tutor Anoushka Sefu. “I grew up in France but I was born in Gabon and moved to the States at the end of 2010 in November. With the knowledge I had from home I felt that it allowed me to help others.”

For some, the need to help is so powerful that they do it without the 10.97 dollars per hour paycheck that tutors receive. Jurandir Chan is a volunteer at the MLMC, having moved to the US four years ago from Brazil.

“As a tutor you address specific questions in language but you learn from them as well,” said Chan.

The give-and-take mentality towards tutoring is seen often. The tutors admit that learning a language goes beyond being fluent. For some of the staff, going beyond involves strengthening their skills in English.

Jie Fei and Yaran Tan are the MLMC’s newest additions to staff, both working as Mandarin tutors.

Spanish tutors, Yarlene Hernandez and Wilberto Dones, review a conjugation.

Spanish tutors, Yarlene Hernandez and Wilberto Dones, review a conjugation.

“The class professor recommended us,” said Fei who had come to America in 2008. “We enjoyed it because we know more students. We figure its more than just us tutoring them. They’re good at English and we’re good at Chinese. We all can improve.”

At the MLMC, some of the tutors have earned the opportunity to apply their skills toward a new role at CSI. Annalisa Susca, an MLMC tutor for five years, and Katina White, a tutor for twelve, have become adjunct lecturers in addition to tutoring.

“You can learn so much from tutoring,” admitted Susca. “You learn how to be patient and how to have a one-on-one conversation. Working here as a tutor gives you insight. After repeating these lessons with students over so many years I’ve learned exactly where students are having difficulties in learning Italian.”

“The tutoring lab is a place where students come for a relaxed environment,” added White. “It’s difficult because there are different relationships. Tutoring isn’t the same thing as being in the classroom.You have to act accordingly.”

The variety of students and tutors at the MLMC already adds to a thriving and educational community. But the MLMC may be one of very few tutoring labs to journey into the 21st century.

Technology has found a new importance in the lab.

“WeSpeke and DuoLingo are two free technologies that anyone can access from any smartphone or computer with internet access. They are becoming popular names in Computer-Assisted Language Learning, which is the field that the media center assists with,” explained Belmonti.

DuoLingo is an app available for free on Apple and Android platforms. At first glance it seems to be a Rosetta Stone-based learning program. But constant use of the app shows that it feels like a video-game and quickly becomes addictive as you make your way through lessons in prepositional phrases, verbs, and basic sentences. Available for those who wish to learn French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Italian, DuoLingo was nominated as the best Apple app in 2013.

“Students occasionally ask us for additional resources like websites, worksheets, media tutorials, software. We have now incorporated DuoLingo in the pool of resources we can suggest to students when asked,” said Belmonti.

Another big tech change is a website called

“WeSpeke is a social network where users seek conversation partners for talking about a subject while also practicing a language. Users can look for conversation partners according to subjects,” explained Belmonti. “For example, if you have an assignment on a current news or world event, or you are researching a foreign book or artist, and you are interested in French too, then WeSpeke can find a French person interested in practicing English that also would like to talk about those subjects and share views with you.”

With the opportunity to strengthen language skills, learn about different cultures, and even use some incredible technology, the MLMC is trying to reach out to other students who are hesitant about the tutoring experience at CSI.

“Make the most out of your college experience at CSI,” declares Belmonti. “We live in NYC and there are people from all over the world. There are going to be other people with the 4.0 GPA. But there are less people with a 4.0 and mastery in a foreign language.”

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