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College Hall on Sept. 20, 2022. Credit: Savanna Cohen

Students, faculty, and staff in Penn’s Quechua Language Program are working to raise awareness about the program on campus in an effort to increase funding and resources from the University.

Quechua is the most widely spoken indigenous language in the Americas and is the only indigenous South American language offered at Penn. While Penn is the one of the first Ivy League institutions to offer the language in such a capacity, according to the program website, it suffers from a lack of resources and currently has no full-time faculty members.

The University began offering Quechua language courses through the Penn Language Center in 2014, following a petition by several graduate students. Three Quechua classes are offered at Penn. In 2019, the program began working with the Fulbright Scholar Program to bring one Quechua scholar to Penn each year as a Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA).

The program’s founder and coordinator, Américo Mendoza-Mori, said that having Quechua Fulbright Scholars is “a unique opportunity for the University to learn from indigenous scholars because historically, universities have [carried] colonial legacies.” 

This academic year, Sofía Vega-Zanca is at Penn as a Quechua Fulbright Scholar. Hailing from a village in Ayacucho, Peru, Vega-Zanca teaches QUEC 0100: Elementary Quechua I and facilitates projects and activities for the program. At the beginning of the fall semester, Vega-Zanca hosted a Quechua welcome night, and she hopes to arrange cultural nights in the coming months.

“It has been such an enriching experience,” she said. “I wouldn’t imagine [that] I would end up visiting or coming to Penn or an Ivy League school of such prestige and [be] able to share my culture [and] the Quechua language.” 

William Andahua-Arellan was Penn’s Quechua Fulbright Scholar during the 2021-2022 academic year. He said he enjoyed his experience as an FLTA and emphasized that teaching Quechua extended beyond simply conveying the language. 

“I learned that I was not teaching just a language,” Andahua-Arellan said. “I was sharing my culture.” 

Wharton junior Braulio Gonzalez has taken Quechua courses at Penn and served as a student coordinator for the program last semester. Gonzalez echoed Andahua-Arellan’s sentiments, adding that Quechua has been a highlight of his time at Penn. 

“The class deals a lot with the Andean culture beyond just learning to speak Quechua,” he said. “We sang during the class; we danced. It's basically a super interactive classroom dynamic.” 

Gonzalez also emphasized that most of the Quechua Fulbright Scholars grew up in Quechuan communities and experienced the language and culture firsthand.

“Most of the professors, their first language is Quechua, which, given that it’s an endangered native language, is crazy,” Gonzalez said. “They’re [some] of the only people in the world that are carrying that culture.”  

Along with language courses, the program hosts events celebrating and sharing Quechua and Andean culture. Mendoza-Mori said that Quechua Language Program events exemplify the importance of indigenous language programs at Penn. 

“There are very few spaces for the presence of indigenous languages,” he said. “Indigenous language programs help to facilitate many other things, like cultural programming.” 

The Quechua Language Program, like other small departments and programs at Penn, faces challenges with resources and staffing. While Mendoza-Mori is the program’s founder and coordinator, he teaches full-time at Harvard University. As such, the Quechua Language Program has no full-time faculty members. 

Andahua-Arellan said he would have liked to have had a physical space to store the teaching books and materials he was using for his courses.

Gonzalez added that he would like to see Quechua added to the list of courses that fulfill general education requirements, specifically the Cross-Cultural Analysis requirement. He also encouraged students without cultural roots or connections to Quechua to take the courses. Vega-Zanca expressed a similar sentiment, saying that she welcomes students of all backgrounds and experiences.

“We are so happy to welcome everyone,” she said. “[In Quechua], we don’t have a word for friend. We address everybody as brothers and sisters.” 

Andahua-Arellan emphasized institutions’ roles in promoting diversity and extending support for indigenous languages. 

“Universities like Penn are important. They have this important role [as] a gateway,” he said. “Offering Quechua helps a lot because it promotes the reflection on the relevance of native or indigenous languages.” 

Mendoza-Mori echoed this sentiment, urging universities to adapt to their increasingly diverse student bodies. 

“Institutions like Penn, or in general, universities, are becoming more diverse spaces. But how much are institutions willing to be transformed by the diverse student populations?” he said. “That means [transforming] the academic infrastructure by offering these different traditions of knowledge that historically were overlooked.”