For the 17th straight year, the Alpha Phi chapter of Sigma Delta Pi at Texas Tech has been named a top “honor chapter” as it pioneers foreign language education.
Sigma Delta Pi is the country's largest collegiate foreign language honor society and the chapter at Texas Tech recently was named a top “honor chapter” for the 17th consecutive year.
While the Alpha Phi chapter was established at Texas Tech since 1944, making it one of the university's oldest societies, something happened 17 years ago that coincided with the chapter's rise in prestige.
Comfort Pratt arrived at Texas Tech.
An associate professor of bilingual education and English as a second language in the College of Education's Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Pratt has served as the chapter's faculty adviser since her arrival in 2004.
“Not even a month into my time at Texas Tech, two students rushed into my office after hearing I'd previously led a Spanish club at Northwestern State University,” Pratt said. “They needed a new faculty adviser for this chapter and proposed to initiate me.
“Honestly, I was shocked; I'd never even heard of Sigma Delta Pi before,” Pratt said. “By 2004, I had been studying and teaching the Spanish language for many years, and no other university I'd been at ever had a chapter.”
And when it comes to all things Spanish, Pratt would know.
An early love for linguistics
Born in Ghana, Pratt grew up surrounded by languages. Not only were there more than 80 different languages spoken in her country alone, but her father was a Methodist minister and often traveled to different parts of Africa as part of his involvement with the All-African Council of Churches.
“I admired my father's work, but more than anything, I loved meeting all the different people he would come across,” Pratt said. “As a young girl, I began to realize how big the world was, and I wanted to be able to communicate with as many people as possible.”
Fortunately, Pratt attended a primary school in Cape Coast that taught English in first grade and French in eighth grade. From there, she attended boarding school at Wesley Girls' Senior High School which provided her with even more opportunities for advanced language study.
“By the time I arrived at the University of Ghana, I knew I wanted to study foreign language,” Pratt said. “I enrolled as a French student but was informed I could not study just one language; I had to pick two.
“I hadn't thought of any languages other than French,” Pratt said. “So, I just looked through the university's list and picked Spanish on a whim.”
During her time at the University of Ghana, Pratt was awarded a one-year scholarship to study in Spain.
“By the time that year was over, I was hooked,” Pratt said. “I came back home fluent in Spanish, and decided I wanted to work as a translator in some sort of governmental capacity.”
After all, her father had taught her to type at the age of 7. So, between her fast fingers and her even quicker brain, she figured she had the chops to do it.
“I first worked as the secretary to the Spanish ambassador in Ghana,” Pratt said. “After that, I relocated to Spain to earn my graduate certificate in translation while also working for the Nigerian ambassador in Spain.”
Pratt's goal was to work at the United Nations, but something else tugged at her.
“Growing up, my sister always said, ‘Comfort, you behave like a teacher,' but I thought that was crazy,” Pratt said. “Teaching wasn't a part of my plan, yet I kept finding myself in school.”
Upon moving to the U.S., Pratt decided to pursue a master's degree in foreign languages.
“I wanted to move to New York to work for the United Nations, but somehow I found myself at Texas A&M pursuing another degree.”
From there, Pratt moved to Louisiana.
“A position came open at Northwestern State, and a colleague at Texas A&M submitted my CV, next thing I knew, I was head of the Spanish program at Northwestern State,” Pratt said.
While teaching at Northwestern State, Pratt simultaneously earned her doctorate at Louisiana State University, which meant making a six-hour round trip, twice a week, since this was well before online learning.
When Pratt graduated with her doctorate, she came to Texas Tech. She was all-in on teaching; her dream having changed.
Sigma Delta Pi
While the honor society had been at Texas Tech since the 1940s, Pratt's arrival reinvigorated not only the chapter, but the Spanish program as a whole.
The degree program had been largely grammar-based prior to Pratt's arrival, and she introduced a communicative program.
“Grammar doesn't teach a language,” Pratt said. “You need real-life situations to practice, so I had students work through communicative challenges like hospital visits and similar scenarios.”
Although Pratt is now in the College of Education, her early presence at Texas Tech revolutionized the Spanish program. A key part of that was the revitalization of the university's Sigma Delta Pi chapter.
“The national collegiate Hispanic honor society was founded in 1919,” Pratt said. “Its mission is to honor those who attain excellence of the study of Spanish language and literature, and the cultures of the Spanish-speaking peoples. Students don't have to be Spanish majors to join, you just have to be studying the language in some way and have a 3.2 grade point average (GPA) or higher.”
The Texas Tech chapter currently has 45 members, all Spanish-fluent students and honorary members in leadership positions in the community. Current honorary members include professors, teachers, lawyers and journalists.
“One thing that sets us apart is how much community outreach we do,” Pratt said. “From bilingual readings in schools to hosting a Spanish spelling bee and events such as Día de los Muertos, we make a point to get off campus and get involved in the community.
“The first thing we focus on is getting kids excited about higher education. Second, we focus on getting them to Texas Tech.”
Beyond community outreach, the chapter also offers free tutoring, game nights, recurring lecture series, poetry competitions, music and dance events, tournaments, film festivals and fashion shows.
Foreign language in the 21st century
What is fascinating about the growth of the chapter is the work students do to keep foreign language at the forefront of relevancy and research at Texas Tech.
Dakota Tucker, the chapter's president, is earning his master's degree in Spanish literature.
“We live in a time where perhaps medicine or engineering seem to be at the forefront of practical academic study,” Tucker said. “However, even doctors are limited in who they can help when they are monolingual. The bottom line is, the more languages you speak, the more people you can reach.”
It's a similar understanding to the revelation Pratt had as a child.
“Having the knowledge of another language opens so many doors,” Tucker said. “It helps you meet more people and build more relationships. And that is at the heart of any profession.”
Tucker teaches an entry-level Spanish course at Texas Tech and was met with a surprise on the last day of class this semester.
“One of my students gave me a card to thank me, and inside it said they'd been able to talk with members of their Spanish-speaking family they'd never connected with before,” Tucker said. “That's the heart of why we learn languages.”
And while it has been commonplace for Americans to speak only one language, times are changing. In a country where English is widely spoken, the ease of communication has been taken for granted.
But this might not always be the case.
“Sixty percent of the world speaks more than one language,” said Veronica Cora-Castillo, vice president of the Alpha Phi chapter, also pursuing a master's degree in Spanish literature. “It's the rest of the world that needs to catch up. Our world is becoming more globalized by the day, and employers are increasingly seeking to hire people who are bilingual, if not trilingual.”
The Alpha Phi chapter wants Texas Tech graduates to be the most competitive candidates on the job market. They know with bilingualism on the rise, fluency in Spanish is key to success.
“In our globalized world, you can't just learn about your own culture,” Pratt said. “You'll work with so many kinds of people, so the more languages you know, the better. Those who are limited to one language can't connect to as many people or ideas.”
Pratt speaks six languages, and in some of the world, that's very common.
“There are degree programs at Texas Tech that are beginning to require study abroad for this very reason,” Pratt said. “Our Alpha Phi chapter is yet one more tool students have to get a leg-up on the job market competition.
“We've even worked with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) so their medical students can practice on our chapter members in Spanish. I promise you, those medical students will go on to have bigger practices and see more patients, because they'll be able to help more people.”
In addition to helping students become fluent in Spanish, the chapter is passionate about educating people on Spanish-speaking cultures.
“There are 21 Spanish-speaking countries in the world,” Cora-Castillo said. “It's not just Mexico, as some seem to believe. As a chapter, we try to celebrate a new culture each month and highlight the ways each culture influences the Spanish language.
“Texas Tech is a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) but I feel like we've only scratched the surface of what that really means. Yes, we have a large Mexican American presence on campus, but the Hispanic community is bigger than that. Not everyone is Mexican, and as the university continues its journey as an HIS, we need to find more ways to celebrate all cultures.”
In the past few years, the Alpha Phi chapter has highlighted countries such as Honduras, Chile and Puerto Rico. Through lecture series or more casual gatherings, the members discover and discuss the unique dynamics that each country contributes to the Spanish language, whether those are native dialects, pop culture or even traditional foods.
While Pratt did not end up at the United Nations, one might argue her gifts were even better utilized here at Texas Tech.
Whether it's a kindergartener hearing Dr. Seuss in Spanish for the first time, or students like Cora-Castillo who feel empowered to step into faculty roles that need more representation, Pratt has realized her dream of connecting with people.