Wesleyan Debuts Japanese Classes at the Center for Prison Education

by Julia Gardner

Starting in the fall semester of 2009, Wesleyan University has extended its classes beyond the lawns of our Middletown campus and into classrooms in Connecticut state prisons through the Center for Prison Education initiative. Each semester since, faculty from Wesleyan, in conjunction with faculty from Middlesex Community College, bring courses from their home campuses to the Cheshire Correctional Institution and York CI. Through a rigorous admissions process, students at the facilities are admitted to the courses of their choice, which maintain both the expectations and content from their home campus counterparts. 

This semester, the Center for Prison Education offered its first Japanese class, taught by Wesleyan’s Professor Naho Maruta. Supporting Professor Maruta in the role of Course Assistant is Stella Zhang, a senior here at Wesleyan.

At the beginning of the year, Stella Zhang was already set to work as a Course Assistant for Professor Maruta’s class on Wesleyan’s campus, so when Professor Maruta reached out to ask if she would also like to CA for her class at the Center, she thought it sounded like an interesting opportunity to experience two very different environments– and to put her belief that everyone should have an opportunity to learn into action. 

The Center for Prison Education’s weekly schedule looks a bit different than that of a language class on our Middletown campus: the courses consist of a weekly three-hour class session with Professor Maruta, and a weekly three-hour study hall session with Stella. Because students aren’t able to reach out to instructors outside of class hours, Stella’s role is essential to clarify content and help students keep up with their language practice. Although her CA sessions at the CPE are much more structured in order to ensure students have the opportunity to clear up any questions about class content, she also makes space to answer any questions that students may have about Japanese culture. 

While the three-hour sessions are long, Stella finds that she often leaves feeling energized by the students’ contagious enthusiasm. Stella’s students at the Center are highly motivated and incentivized to work hard in class– but that doesn’t stop them from offering a helping hand to fellow students as well! The students create a collaborative environment, often offering support to confused classmates and working together to overcome the obstacles of language learning.

Taking a language class is a very new experience for most of the students, which balances out the humanities classes that usually fill the rest of their schedule. As the Center has never offered a Japanese class, students typically come to the classroom with curiosity and eagerness.

Language learning is, inevitably, a long and frustrating process- but Stella has seen incredible growth just over the course of this semester. To her, this is one of the most rewarding parts of the experience: “They go from knowing absolutely no Japanese at the beginning of the semester, to being able to give a presentation in Japanese.”

The Center for Prison Education takes on students in a handful of capacities each semester, with Course Assistant opportunities open to seniors who are passionate about education. For anyone who’s considering taking on a role at the Center, Stella’s advice is to go for it: “While working in the facility might seem intimidating, it’s actually an incredibly fun and rewarding experience.”
If you want to learn more about the CPE program and ways you can get involved, visit Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education webpage.