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Finding inspiration in a Dominican shanty town

Eleanor Patten, a political science and marketing student at Northeastern, has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, which she will use to teach English in Spain as a means to bolster her Spanish-speaking skills. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

A ukulele, a couple of flying discs, and a handful of Spanish phrases. That’s all Eleanor Patten needed to wrangle 40 young students inside a Dominican batey, a settlement where sugar cane cutters live in a shanty-town camp. Her students laughed and played, and challenged Patten with their language skills. No older than 7, many of them spoke in sentences sprinkled with English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole.

“Guys, come over here! ¡Chicos, ven aquí! Vin isit la!”

On her flight back to Boston, Patten, who graduated in May with a degree in political science and business, felt something nagging at her. She remembered Robert, a Haitian refugee her age who could speak six languages, but needed to work two jobs to go to school. She couldn’t help but think: Robert had all the talent, but none of the opportunity. And she wondered if her limited Spanish skills had hindered her ability to connect with the students during the weeklong volunteering stint.

“If I possessed better Spanish skills, would I have made more of a difference? Why had I strayed so far from my childhood dream of being a teacher?

For Patten, it was an ‘aha’ moment—one that made her realize she wanted to become a bilingual educator. She figured: if she could teach a Xhosa-speaking child in South Africa how to play ‘Duck, Duck, Goose,’ how would being fluent in Spanish shape her ability to help immigrant students in the United States?

“I quickly realized that if I wanted to work in the international education space I would need to improve my ability to speak another language,” she said.

Patten described this epiphany in an application she submitted for the Fulbright Scholarship, which she was awarded in April. The scholarship is a prestigious award that provides grants for research projects or English teaching assistant programs. Past winners have included former United States Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, author Jonathan Franzen, and soprano Renee Fleming.

Patten will use her Fulbright to teach English in Spain as a means to bolster her Spanish-speaking skills. Once armed with her newfound fluency, Patten plans to teach English to “vulnerable populations in the United States,” she said. Patten also plans to parlay what she learns in Spain into her own education-based social enterprise.

“I was thrilled when I found out I received the grant and I was even more excited to find out I will be working with younger students in the Canary Islands,” she said. “This grant will allow me to gain valuable skills as an educator and as an individual working to understand a different culture.”

Patten was one of nine Fulbright scholars from Northeastern who were celebrated at the Academic Honors Convocation on April 18. The annual ceremony recognizes students and faculty who have received prestigious awards for scholarship, research, or teaching over the past year.

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