Language center atmosphere more like 'treasure hunting'
September 9, 2011
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash.--
There aren't a lot of places where you can pass by bits of Indonesia, Russia, Afghanistan and Mexico without leaving the same building.
Most of these places are museums. But the Joint Base Lewis-McChord language center has its own set of artifacts lining hallways and hanging in offices. It's a collection years in the making, but the pieces are more than decorative. They lend the center a sense of place and purpose.
"We've tried to create an atmosphere," language center director Yvonne Pawelek said.
In a lot of ways Pawelek is also the center's curator. She's worked there since the mid-80s, through four different locations. The decorations started with framing pictures from National Geographic
and prints from travel-themed calendars.
Soon enough Pawelek was bringing in items from her own travels, and exotic finds from garage and estate sales. Then instructors started bringing items back from visits to their home countries. Before long, students and staff were donating items, too.
"It's kind of like treasure hunting in a way," Pawelek said.
Decorating is a hobby of hers, and the language center is a perfect outlet for some of her finds. Pawelek once came across a wooden Indonesian statue literally covered in mud at a yard sale, just in need of cleaning. Another time she discovered a Chinese wall hanging from the 1800s, filthy and crinkled in an attic.
There are some things not even she could have contributed, though. Retired Sgt. Maj. William Gayton gave the center an Iraqi bandage, brought back from a deployment, that doubles as an anatomical guide. The piece of fabric shows different ways to use the bandage, and has
numbers on different body parts with a list of corresponding names.
Now there's hardly an inch of free space on the walls in the hallways. Posters, paintings, figurines and household items are found anywhere there's room to put them.
Pawelek likes to focus on areas students learn about at the language center. In the beginning, she honed in on items from Southeast Asia, China and Japan. Now she keeps an eye out for pieces from Afghanistan and Iraq.
"In the end, besides just being pretty, it does have a real teaching component," she said.
The pieces, from local paintings to authentic teapots, are what language instructors call "realia." They're the little things that remind students what they're doing has applications beyond the classroom.
The collection also helps demonstrate the language center's way of thinking about the world. Many of its instructors and employees are from countries that are experiencing conflict. Coming in to a place that clearly holds cultural objects in high regard is a sign that people, no matter how different, are important, too.
"It's not about the money; it's about coming in and being respected and having their expertise valued," regional manager Denise McCluskey, who helps recruit instructors, said.
It's a philosophy that McCluskey thinks has an impact on the way students act and learn.
"When the Soldiers come here, I believe when they look at the walls, they will see that aspect of our values," she said.
The decorations certainly make an impression on visitors. Larissa Jones, originally from Russia, works at the front desk and watches as everyone walks in the door. Jones says sometimes the walls are so fascinating, it's hard to get people to focus on anything else.
"It looks like a museum, an international museum," she said.
It's a vibe that made Jones more comfortable working there. With little bits of other cultures scattered through the building, she knew she wouldn't be out of place.
This is exactly what they're going for.
"When students come here, they feel like they're in a real school," language center employee Deedee Peters said. "They feel the whole world around them."