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Drake receives federal funds for innovative virtual language program

March 2, 2010
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Back row from left to right: Mariah Marconi, Jessica Lang, Zach Smith; Front row: Drake President David Maxwell and Congressman Leonard Boswell.

Drake recently received $1.58 million in federal funds for a new virtual language-learning program developed to meet the nation's critical need for fluent speakers of languages other than English.

Drake's Virtual Language Studies program is designed to help increase competence in less commonly taught languages for reasons of national security and global economic competitiveness. Students in the program are learning Russian and Mandarin Chinese.

The federal funds helping to support the program come from an $800,000 appropriation signed into law in December 2009 and a $788,177 grant from the Department of Defense and its National Security Education Program.

U.S. Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Des Moines, joined President Maxwell in making the announcement at a news conference today.

"Drake would like to express our profound thanks to Congressman Boswell for his leadership and commitment in securing the federal funds for this innovative program," President Maxwell said.

"This funding will help Drake to have a broad national impact on the development of foreign language capacity," Boswell said.

Virtual Language Studies is a pilot project within Drake's World Languages and Cultures Program. Jan Marston stepped aside as director of the World Languages and Cultures to direct the initiative.

Virtual language students practice speaking skills with native speakers and study the language in its cultural context with faculty members in small groups five days each week via real time video conferences and lectures in a virtual classroom. They use a broadband Internet connection and a computer with a webcam to participate in the virtual sessions.

Richard H. Ekman, president of the national Council of Independent Colleges, has stated that practical language learning is what many students want and need.

"The Virtual Language Program is producing language-learning materials that will be of great value to a variety of institutions and organizations," said Ekman, who was a member of the advisory board of the National Foreign Language Center, where President Maxwell served as director from 1993-99.

"The federal support is powerful recognition of Drake University's leadership in developing effective language-learning programs," he added.

Three Drake students who are enrolled in the virtual language program spoke about their experiences and presented works from their electronic portfolios at the news conference:

  • Zachary Smith, JO'09, of West Des Moines, a senior secondary education major learning Mandarin Chinese after teaching English in China for a year
  • Mariah Marconi of Chatham, Ill., a first-year writing major studying Russian
  • Jessica Lang, AS'07, of Des Moines, a graduate education student learning Mandarin Chinese in hopes of teaching in China

In addition, students at Drake's partner institutions -- Abilene Christian University, Davis and Elkins College, Russell Sage College and Southern Vermont College -- have the opportunity to learn Mandarin Chinese and Russian.