Communicating Across Divides

Five friends of the Middlebury Language Schools with fascinating career trajectories share their wisdom and advice.

Whenever the Language Schools allow their disciplined students to break the Pledge, for no matter how brief an interval, you can be sure that the occasion is a special one—and the Alumni Panel does not disappoint. Each year, the Middlebury Language Schools invite a few distinguished alumni to discuss how their linguistic education has shaped their lives and career paths. 

During the most recent panel discussion, held in July, all of the panelists remarked not only on the value of being able to communicate in a foreign language but also on the indirect benefits of studying one, especially at Middlebury. Traits that an individual cultivates by learning a new language, such as tenacity, attention to detail, and openness, prove to be enduring assets.

At the Smithsonian

Taina Caragol-Barreto, MA French ’01, curator of Latino art and history for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, noted that she rarely uses the French that she studied at Middlebury. However, she added, “Studying languages is really a wonderful entryway into knowing cultures and becoming really sensitive about who you are and who the others around you are, the experiences that shape you and them—basically how you view the world and how others do, as well. My background as a language student here has been really important in providing me the main tools of my curatorial practice.”

Going Viral

For Jessica Beinecke, Chinese attendee ’06-’07, president of JM Beinecke Inc., the fluency in Mandarin she gained through the Chinese School gave her the ability to connect with Chinese students her own age when she traveled abroad. “I learned that they are 99 percent if not 100 percent similar to us in terms of what they care about.” Beineicke created OMG Meiyu, a viral web series designed to introduce young Chinese people to American English and culture. Thanks to the confidence she acquired at the Language Schools, she said, “Today I come here as a 26-year-old entrepreneur who used the tools that Middlebury gave to me to create my own U.S.-China cross-cultural communications production company.”

Prepare to Launch

Mila Pavek ’92, MA Russian ’93, once earned a reputation for her ability to yell in Russian through a bullhorn while managing rocket security for Sea Launch, an international partnership that launches telecommunication satellites. These days she is a project manager for behavioral science technology company, Inflexxion. As she observes, “I don’t really use my language much except to communicate with a few Russian-speaking colleagues, but I do use related skills to explain to a PhD what a software developer is saying, because even though they both speak English, they’re from completely different cultures and speak different languages.” Pavel notes that the international backgrounds of her Language Schools peers helped her “to learn how to talk to people, to look for someone’s communication style, and not just to barrel in.”

Survival of the Fittest

Jeffrey Wood, a career and academic advisor for the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS), highlighted the importance of language education for a new generation of learners. “Today’s college graduates aren’t just competing in a local market,” he said. “Their competition might be on the other side of the United States, it might come from China, it could be anywhere around the world. They have to become global citizens to survive, especially in the next 10 to 20 years.” Wood, who has used his own command of French to negotiate internships and coordinate programs abroad, also explained how language students must obtain a thorough grounding in key professional terminologies. “Each language has its own personality. If you’re studying Russian, for instance, you’re going to have to know about oil and gas. You come to understand the demand for each language.”

Know Thyself

According to Joshua Haynes, Arabic attendee ’05, a senior development technologist and media adviser at USAID, the skill set he nurtured at the Language Schools proved useful when he had to learn computer programming languages. He discovered that studying a foreign language helped him to become more aware of his own learning style, and he was able to apply that insight into other fields of knowledge. “Knowing how you do things helps you in so many other ways.” Haynes’s fluency in multiple languages encouraged him to travel and take a chance on career opportunities. As he advised the audience, “To have an awesome life, do something random and do it often.”

View the bios from this year’s panelists. 

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