When she was a junior at Connecticut College, Willow Mata ’01 dreamed of winning a Fulbright after she returned from studying abroad in Granada, Spain.
“When my acceptance arrived last year in that non-descript envelope, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I immediately picked up the phone and called my husband and family.”
Mata was awarded a Fulbright to research the effects of immigration on schools in Catalonia, a region of Spain whose inhabitants speak not only Spanish but Catalan and Aranese as well.
Catalonia’s economy has been booming for the last thirty years, and people from around the world have relocated to the region en masse. Still, the Catalan language is deeply rooted in local culture, and the government mandates that students in public schools be instructed in Catalan.
“Immigration is one of the most significant phenomena shaping today’s societies,” said Mata, who added that it’s important to look at how public schools respond to cultural diversity since schooling helps shape relationships in the larger society.
Currently a Ph.D. candidate studying education at UC Berkeley, Mata has been living in Barcelona since August.
Mata spends her days with children in local high schools whose students are primarily Latin American immigrants, hailing from countries like Columbia, Ecuador and Bolivia. She also interviews Catalan policy makers, not an easy task given the language barriers.
Though she arrived in Barcelona already fluent in Spanish, learning to speak and understand the Catalan language has made Mata’s research considerably more difficult. She has taken a course in the language and regularly practices conversing with a native speaker who she, in turn, helps with English.
Prior to winning the Fulbright, Mata previously returned to Spain to write a master’s thesis on the language policy of schools in the Spanish Basque Country.
Mata first conducted ethnographic research in human development courses at the College, writing about her fieldwork at an after-school program serving Hispanic children in New London.
“My enduring passion for focusing my research on schools was definitely born while working toward a teaching certificate at Conn,” she said.
Professor Sunil Bhatia, director of the Holleran Center for Community Action and Public Policy, still has a copy of Mata’s senior project on his bookshelf.
“Willow worked beyond the classroom and used her exceptional talents and capabilities to turn her research into meaningful action,” he said.
She plans to return to the United States this May to begin writing her dissertation and is seeking a university teaching and research position.
-Matt Zientek ’10