Oldenborg Center Offers Immersion Experience in Language and Culture

Three students in outdoor setting on campus

Jacqueline Cordes ’25 lives in a Japanese world, even though she’s never yet been to the Land of the Rising Sun. When she visits there someday, she hopes that when she speaks the language, locals will answer back in Japanese. In the meantime, Cordes, a music major, lives on the Japanese language hall at Pomona College’s Oldenborg Center, where she is immersed in a culture and language she’s loved since junior high school.

In another wing of maze-like Oldenborg, sociology major Nate Rubin ’26 lives on a Spanish language hall. “I didn’t really like Spanish that much in high school,” he admits. When he took a class during his first year at Pomona to meet the language requirement, though, the professor required the students during the semester to participate at least ten times in the Oldenborg language tables held weekdays at lunch. “After going once or twice, I decided to go every single day. It’s really fun,” he says. By the end of his first year he had decided to move into Oldenborg for his sophomore year, and he’s found “a really warm community.”

Early in the pandemic, Xuehuai He ’25, an international student from China double-majoring in linguistics and mathematics, was stuck for two long days in the airport in Helsinki, Finland. Bored, they began to notice the signs in Finnish, a Uralic language most akin to Estonian and Hungarian. “I had nothing to do, so I might as well try to figure out what’s happening in this language,” He recounts. “And then I got serious and kept learning it,” becoming fluent enough to spend a week in 2022 in the country speaking only Finnish. This semester He, who lives in a Friendship Suite with three other students and is a part of the German language community, introduced a Finnish language table at Oldenborg.

Building community through language

For many students, language tables at Oldenborg help increase fluency in a target language. Depending on the day, conversation opportunities include Arabic, Swahili, Persian, Haitian-Creole, Turkish and Greek, to name a few. It’s a supportive environment, and beginners are welcome. Rubin enjoys getting to know faculty and staff who frequently join students. “It’s nice to have a community and people to check in on me,” he says, and it’s “also just really cool forming relationships in Spanish.”

For students who want to go deeper in language acquisition, Oldenborg includes language immersion halls in Chinese, Russian, French, Spanish, Japanese and German. A native-speaker language resident lives in each hall and organizes culturally related activities for the students, such as cooking authentic regional foods. Another advantage of living in Oldenborg is very practical, says He: “The dining hall is literally downstairs. It takes me one and a half minutes to get there.”

Cordes moved into Oldenborg’s Japanese language hall as a sophomore—the first year she was eligible—and plans to stay until she graduates next year. “I really love my hall,” she says. “If you see someone in the hall, usually we’re speaking Japanese.”

A career advantage

Carolina De la Rosa Bustamante is the staff director of Oldenborg. “Learning languages helps us understand other worldviews, a skill that is more crucial now than ever,” she says. “Whether it's going into the corporate world, politics, research, or academia, there is no downside to knowing more than one language.”

It's too soon to tell if the language skills these Oldenborg residents are mastering will turn into a primary career. He might spend some time before graduate school possibly teaching English as a foreign language. Cordes is minoring in Japanese and is currently translating a Japanese novel into English. “It’s really, really interesting,” she’s finding. “It’s like an art form.”

Rubin, who is pursuing a pre-med track, is now conversationally fluent in Spanish thanks to his Oldenborg experience. He believes it will be helpful in his future medical career, possibly as a pediatrician. “It’s so important, especially in Southern California, to speak Spanish,” he says. And “it’s so rewarding to be able to talk to more people and connect.”

A supportive environment

Regardless of their ultimate career directions, living in Oldenborg has helped the students to find a community on campus. “In the age of social media and AI, community is more important than ever,” notes Eileen J. Cheng, professor of Chinese and faculty director of Oldenborg. “The spirit of Oldenborg is to bring together, in community, language learners and those curious about the world.”

“I have a lot of friends in my hall,” says Rubin. “We hang out in the lounge a lot on Friday nights, we do board games or watch tv. It’s a very close community.”

He’s Friendship Suite includes students who speak Chinese, German and Spanish. Three of the four have already signed up for a Friendship Suite again next year. He spends time with fellow German hall colleagues as well as with suitemates. “We have events, German gatherings in the lounge. We have movie nights sometimes,” and, He adds, “the German language resident is awesome.”

Cordes says that the Oldenborg community is very supportive of language learners. “Given that we’re speaking in a language that’s not our primary language, there are going to be miscommunications, but that’s actually part of the fun,” she says. “If you’re passionate about a language and you’re wanting that immersive experience, absolutely move in. There will be a community of people who support you every step of the way.”