Schweitzer Fellows Brandi Montgomery and Crystal Cox lead “Speaking in Color,” a program they launched to help students code switch

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By the University of North Carolina System Communications

Believe it or not, sentence structure has an impact on health and well-being. Just ask Brandi Montgomery and Crystal Cox, two of North Carolina’s 2018-19 Schweitzer Fellows.

Every year, Schweitzer Fellows dedicate themselves to a year-long project. As the program’s namesake suggests, the projects are designed to improve community health and well-being. This year, there are 28 fellows, working mostly in teams of two. Their work comes in many forms: promoting health literacy among immigrant communities; providing an oral health programs and dental services to underserved populations; promoting adolescent sexual health; helping families reduce social and environmental triggers for asthma; helping medically disadvantaged refugees apply for citizenship. The list goes on.

In addition to their full time graduate studies in North Carolina Central University’s Communication Disorders Program, Cox and Montgomery visit Mr. Hervey’s career management course at Durham’s Riverside High School on a weekly basis. Their mission? To help young speakers learn strategies for “code switching” – the linguistic term for shifting back and forth from African American English to Standard American English.

Cox and Montgomery make it clear that their intent isn’t to teach students a “proper” way to speak. African American English has long been mocked and trivialized. Cox and Montgomery want their students to embrace this dialect and understand its long history. At the same time, they want Riverside’s students to also speak in Standard American English, a dialect that is less habitual to many of them.

What’s the connection between code switching and well-being? These lessons will help Riverside students develop critical interview and public communication skills that will help them succeed academically and professionally … and with more self-awareness and self-confidence. In short, these lessons could have a profound impact on the students’ physical and mental well-being.


The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship offers competitive fellowships to graduate students preparing to be health professionals. The program’s aim is to “develop a pipeline of emerging professionals who enter the workforce with the skills and commitment necessary to address unmet health needs.” But its impact is also immediate: as they are completing their studies, selected Fellows deploy their skills serving vulnerable communities.

North Carolina is only one of 14 states with Schweitzer Fellowship chapters. The NC chapter is supported largely through financial partnerships with NCCU, East Carolina University, and UNC-Chapel Hill, along with Duke University, Wake Forest, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation (BCBSNC Foundation). Eleven of the 15 fellowship teams represent UNC System institutions.

These contributions to the Schweitzer Fellowship program, both at the administrative and the boots-on-the-ground level, offer a snapshot of the indispensable role the universities play in preparing the workforce North Carolina will rely on to meet critical healthcare needs.

“The institutions that are our partners aren’t just committed to meeting the needs of their students. They’re equally committed to helping all the people of the state,” said Barbara Heffner, director of North Carolina’s Albert Schweitzer Fellowship. “In addition to the schools, BCBSNC Foundation has been an incredibly supportive partner, which has helped us elevate the leadership training we provide Fellows so they understand their role in addressing health disparities in the emerging health care landscape and are equipped to lead community interventions that have measurable impact.”

Just as importantly, student participation in the program demonstrates the variety of ways our institutions engage with the underserved communities around them.

…student participation in the program demonstrates the variety of ways our institutions engage with the underserved communities around them.

“It’s always so inspiring to see such a large group of young people who want to do amazing and fabulous things for underserved populations throughout the state. It restores one’s faith. We play a large role in preparing health professionals to go out into the workforce and to serve these communities either directly or through volunteer service,” Heffner added.


Like many linguists, Cox and Montgomery avoid using the word “ebonics.” Early in the school year, they discussed the once-in-vogue term as a way to frame their larger point about popular perceptions of African American English. The dialect is the product of history—an audio marker that points all the way back to slavery. But the term “ebonics” trivializes that history and lumps countless regional and demographic variables into one, catch-all category. Moreover, the term has frequently been used in derogatory ways.

Cox and Montgomery are quick to point out that the secret to code switching is to embrace and understand difference, not to reject it.

“We want to eliminate the phrase ‘speaking ghetto’ from the students’ vocabulary,” said Montgomery. “Speaking isn’t a place. It’s not run down and tattered. It’s a difference, not a disorder.”

It’s a difference, not a disorder.

Cox chimed in, “When our students use that phrase, they are buying into a perception that denigrates a dialect. This perception makes a mockery out of history and shatters self-esteem.”

Their lessons help students practice the verbal and non-verbal skills they need to switch to Standard American English. But Cox and Montgomery make it clear that transitioning from one dialect isn’t permanent, nor is code switching a sign of cultural inauthenticity. Instead, they stress the importance of recognizing when and why social circumstance might determine the appropriateness of a dialect.


Cox and Montgomery’s school year began with a ‘hello.’

The first formal exercise required students—most of them ninth and tenth graders–to formally introduce themselves. Every week, when Cox and Montgomery would convene with the class, these same introductions were repeated and rehearsed. These seemingly simple greetings weren’t rote. As the year progressed, they evolved. Gradually they took on the sheen of self-confidence and mastery. Students came out of their shells. These 30-second soundbites charted the course of each student’s growing mastery of code-switching skills.

After a semester’s worth of greetings, interactive exercises, and lessons–including a screening of NCSU linguist Walt Wolfram’s groundbreaking documentary Talking Black in America–the students were ready to rehearse their interviewing skills.

Cox and Montgomery asked peers from NCCU’s graduate program in communication disorders to visit the site and conduct mock job interviews.

Many of these volunteers were White, and all of them were strangers. So, the situation replicated a real-world, high-stakes scenario. The Riverside students were effectively removed from the comfort zone of their familiar speech community. They had to use the code-switching skills they’d spent months practicing, working within a strange and unsettling context.

The NCCU volunteers used a systematic mechanism to assess each student’s performance. How did the class perform? Twenty four out of 30 demonstrated an ability to code switch for at least 80 percent of the allotted 15-minute interview time.

Gradually they took on the sheen of self-confidence and mastery. Students came out of their shells. These 30-second soundbites charted the course of each student’s growing mastery of code-switching skills.

In those fifteen minutes alone, the Riverside students exhibited the confidence and skillset that could potentially transform their lives. Those 15 minutes foretold of more positive and productive interactions with teachers; more remarkable first impressions at job interviews; and more successful professional presentations.


Late in the school year, a substitute teacher—observing Cox and Montgomery’s classroom for the first time—innocently asked, “Isn’t this just ebonics?”

The Schweitzer fellows were primed to respond, but they didn’t have to say a word. One of their own students did the talking for them.

“It’s a dialect, not a disorder. Everybody speaks in a dialect, and African American English has a long history connected to slavery …,” his gentle correction began.

Cox and Montgomery were thrilled.

“Our student sat there, giving her the lesson of an entire semester,” beamed Cox.

“It was confirmation that we had made an impact on these students. There they were, teaching the teacher,” added Montgomery.

In that moment, it was clear that Cox and Montgomery hadn’t just been giving the students facts and information over the course of the school year. They were helping the students gain self-awareness, confidence, and communication skills. In many ways, these are the fundamental tools Riverside’s students will need to expand their horizons, broaden their opportunities, and engage more vigorously with the world around them.