More than 40 percent of students at Emily Carr University of Art + Design consider themselves multilingual, according to surveys conducted during the 2017–18 school year.
Among them was Liora Agronov-Moss. Born in Israel two months after her parents had immigrated from Belarus, she learned Russian at home and then became a fluent Hebrew speaker. She later learned some Arabic and worked on her English.
She moved to Vancouver, obtained a permanent-resident card, then decided to apply to ECU, eventually specializing in industrial design.
In the beginning, Agronov-Moss was terrified that her English skills wouldn’t be good enough, so she studied the language intensively.
But over time, she realized that her fears were misplaced because the university places a premium on students’ ability to develop ideas about art and design rather than how they speak.
“The good thing is that there’s no judgment based on your language,” Agronov-Moss told the Straight by phone. “So coming from somewhere else doesn’t really matter if you’re going to make some grammatical errors or if you have an accent.”
However, she also felt in her early years at ECU that there wasn’t enough space given for students to express themselves and their culture through their own languages.
That’s why she decided to get involved in the Multilingual Emily Carr University project, which was initiated by Cissie Fu, dean of culture and community. The goal was to serve multilingual students and teachers and foster cultural connections through community-building educational and social events.
The surveys were conducted to hear the views of multilingual members of the campus community, including faculty and staff.
This led to a booklet being published, Our Multilingual Classrooms: Insights + Approaches From ECU Teachers and Students, at the start of the 2018-19 school year.
In the booklet, one student revealed that those who attend high schools in China remain silent in class, which is very different from what’s expected in North America.
Another disclosed having a higher level of comfort in a humanities class because it had fewer native speakers than international students.
Another student expressed a feeling of disconnection because most courses are based on western culture.
“I think a lot of instructors, for the first time, had the opportunity to read what students feel in their class,” Agronov-Moss said. “Because usually, multilingual students don’t really speak up.”
According to her, this publication dramatically elevated cultural literacy on campus. “I was walking around with this booklet and giving it to every single instructor I saw,” Agronov-Moss recalled.
One faculty member told her that it was the best thing that he had seen printed by the university. “He said, ‘I read it from cover to cover and I learned a lot.’ That means so much,” she said.
Faculty member Debora O and Agronov-Moss, by then in her fourth year, also spearheaded the university’s first Multilingual Week this year, from January 21 to 25. One of Agronov-Moss’s fellow students was creating a “multigenerational dumpling kit” for her grad project, so they all decided to launch Multilingual Week with a dumpling-making event.
During the week, an interactive map was put on display. Students placed pins showing where they came from and shared their language. Agronov-Moss added that there was also a “wall of ideas”.
“People would write in any language they preferred,” she said.
Agronov-Moss started as a volunteer and was later hired in a paid position as the multilingual coordinator. Her grad project, coHUB, was created to provide a welcoming space for multilingual students. She was given access to an unused area in the library in front of the school’s writing centre—and it is designed very differently from the rest of the university. This space enables people with different majors to gather on modular furniture and discuss shared interests.
“I did some workshops in the space, got people together…and we made little booklets out of sugar packets,” Agronov-Moss said. “My hope for this project is that it will actually be something that will be part of the university’s spirit.
“This is where you come to find other people who are interested in what you are interested in,” she continued. “Maybe you don’t know them. Maybe they speak a different language. Maybe they want to share their knowledge and their skills—kind of like a skill-exchange base.”