Assistant Professor Valeria Ochoa leads the Spanish as a Heritage Language program at the School of Language, Culture, and Society

Dr. Valeria Ochoa

Dr. Valeria Ochoa

By Quinn Keller, CLA Student Writer - May 24 , 2024

Dr. Valeria  Ochoa teaches Spanish at OSU with a specialization in Spanish as a Heritage Language. Although too humble for labels, Dr. Ochoa, assistant professor of Spanish linguistics and Heritage education, explains herself as a coordinator of the Spanish for Heritage Language Program (SHL). Heritage Spanish refers to the language people learn from their families, caretakers, and in communities  where Spanish is otherwise not the dominant language. Dr. Ochoa is a Heritage speaker herself with a wide range of fluency throughout her family, which inspired her linguistic studies at University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), University of Oregon, and Arizona State University (ASU).

She began as a Romance Languages major at UNLV, with a focus on French and Spanish. Initially, she planned to be a multilingual interpreter in French, Spanish, and Italian. After an internship of medical interpretation, she switched to studying linguistics and language teaching studies during her master’s degree at the University of Oregon, upon finding a disconnect between humanities and sciences among her peers. While attending the University of Oregon, she met her mentor and colleagues, who she still collaborates with today.

Currently, Dr. Ochoa teaches third-year Spanish for heritage language learners  (SPAN 316). She said her approach is more about “seeing language as a science; not literature, culture, or other areas where people tend to take Spanish classes.”  She hopes to build confidence in Spanish speakers by giving them the tools to do more advanced things with the language they’re already familiar with. Dr. Ochoa explains that knowledge of language can be visualized like a pyramid with basic language on the bottom and working your way up to more advanced communication. The difference in teaching a second language compared to teaching a Heritage language comes from a “top-down” style, which gives more hands-on experience, instead of “bottom-up” in traditional second language classrooms. This means that her curriculum is structured in a way that helps Spanish speakers acquire language skills such as writing papers, interviewing, and making presentations for more academic settings. Instead of going over grammar structures and vocabulary, Heritage students learn different uses for their knowledge of Spanish.

Dr. Ochoa creates a personal and open space, as evidenced by her office full of snacks for students. “We’re not just churning out Spanish teachers all the time,” she said. “That’s not what language has to be about. We get to know each other and build a community.” Dr. Ochoa explains that being a Heritage Spanish speaker in Oregon can be a very loaded experience. “We all know what it’s like to live in spaces that sometimes welcome us, sometimes don’t,” she said. “Mostly in Oregon, students don’t get to see too many professors that are like them or have one-on-one support.” Having a community of shared Latinx experience in Oregon’s “primarily white institutions” is a refreshing change of pace.  She said that she hopes her students will take the feeling of “home away from home” to their next job, be it a “veterinarian, engineer, or anything they want to do.” Raised in Nevada, Dr. Ochoa said that both she and her students are learning what it means to be Spanish speakers in Oregon, and hearing the stories of her students motivates her to expand the SHL program.

The SHL Program at OSU is still small, but plans are in the works to keep up with the demand of students. Dr. Ochoa recalls that she had to increase the amount of people allowed to waitlist for her first term teaching at OSU because it filled up so fast. She has since started working with interns for class credit through a Spanish 410 internship and wants to expand the Heritage social media presence. You can find them on Instagram @OSU_SHL.  Future plans for Ecampus courses are in the works as well as preparations for a new linguistics minor. Dr. Ochoa claimed that “It’s a lot of work and it’s not for everyone, but I love it. It’s why I’m here and it’s what motivates me.” With the increasing rate of Spanish speakers, Dr. Ochoa collaborates with  SHL coordinators at the University of Oregon and the University of Washington, also Ph.D. graduates from ASU, to raise the quality of Spanish education for Latinx students in the Pacific Northwest.

Recently, Dr. Ochoa was able to host Spanish speaking middle schoolers visiting OSU. “They’re not just all Mexican. They don’t all speak Spanish solely at home,” she said. “There are a lot of Indigenous languages represented among them too and we’re working to make sure all of their needs are met when they enter university.” Long term, Dr. Ochoa will continue to  teach the 300-level Heritage Spanish series, as well as upper-division Spanish and linguistics courses, while continuing to direct and expand the SHL program.