Travel Seminars Bring Classroom Learning to Life

The Lake District of Salzburg is one of the most spectacular parts of Austria, with lakes nestled high among the lush green Salzkammergut Mountains, and picturesque little towns along the shoreline. The area is perfect for biking along the lakeshore — which is exactly what Dana O’Connor, a sophomore at Allegheny College, spent a day doing last summer.

“I biked right next to the Alps and the lakes, and it’s just so quiet and peaceful,” she recalled. “It made me feel so tranquil.”

O’Connor’s moments of serenity came amid an Experiential Learning (EL) Seminar focused on important composers and musical landmarks throughout Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Led by two faculty mentors, Allegheny students learned through attending concerts, visiting historic locations, and discussing their experiences. But they also had time to bask in their surroundings.

“It made me realize I need to take more time to enjoy and experience life,” O’Connor said of the trip. The most influential part of the EL seminar, she added, was “experiencing the different cultures. The rich history of the countries was breathtaking.”

EL seminars are two- to three-week trips, typically at the beginning of summer break, that provide Allegheny students a way to earn academic credits while visiting other countries. Next May, Allegheny students and faculty will have the opportunity to explore histories and cultures through four EL seminars offered by the Allegheny Gateway: Cuba, Greece, Italy, and Berlin to Warsaw.

Sam Adams, a junior neuroscience major, plans to go on the trip to Greece, which she has always wanted to visit. Adams said she sees it as the perfect opportunity to step out of the classroom and become “immersed in the culture … to gain a better understanding of the academic material.” Adams added that she appreciates that students will go to “a lot of non-mainstream tourist areas” to really see the true culture of Greece.

“It’s a way of demonstrating the value of a liberal arts education, and its application and its relevance to the world, and recognizing that what you’re doing on campus is actually directly related to the way in which you are a member of the planet and a global citizen,” Eric Boynton, professor of philosophy and religious studies, said of the EL seminars.

Boynton will lead the Berlin to Warsaw seminar, which focuses on different devastating events in history and how they have shaped the path of humanity. Students will analyze the memorials erected for the “lost populations,” as Boynton called them, such as the Berlin Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe. Participants also will look deeper into the Holocaust, the current Syrian refugee crisis — the largest refugee crisis since World War II — and the Vietnam War.

The trip to Cuba, titled “Revolutionary Products,” will be led by Barbara Reiss, professor of Spanish, and Brittany Davis, assistant professor of environmental science. Students will examine the definition of “revolution” in its construction and societal, economic, and environmental implications, specifically as it pertains to the Cuban Revolution.

Reiss said she wants to enable students to “view themselves as participants in the local community as a commodity (tourists), and as potential agents for change, as participants of the people-to-people exchanges lauded by the U.S. government as the force behind regime change in Cuba.” She believes analyzing the effect of the revolution allows students to view Cuba from various perspectives — through language, history, social justice issues, African and modernist styles, and art and architecture.

The Greece and Ikaria trip, led by Professor of English Christopher Bakken, also encourages students to look at the region from various perspectives — specifically historical, literary, culinary, and sociological. Bakken said he hopes to enable students to “[fall] into the rhythms of life in Greece, while recording their own intellectual and artistic impressions in travel journals.”

Participants will visit various important archeological and cultural sites as well as Ikaria, called a blue zone “island where people forget to die.” Bakken said that students will be pushed to actively see a difference in being a tourist versus being a traveler, “trying our best to adopt the curiosity of the latter, while eschewing the narrow perspective of the former.”

The co-leaders of the EL to Italy, Professor of English David Miller and Associate Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies Mark Cosdon, emphasized that same difference between tourism and travel. This will be Miller and Cosdon’s seventh Italy EL, which has allowed them to change and re-shape the trip over time. They have allowed for a greater connection with the people there, which Cosdon called “a crucial part – the extended homestays with Italian families.” Some students have maintained contact with their host families, a few even returning to Italy later.

In addition to staying in Amelia, students will visit Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Florence, Verona, and Venice to examine the religious, political, and artistic dimensions of Renaissance culture and its residual effect on present-day life.

Beyond the experience and close-up look at the various cultures, EL seminars help to change students’ worldview and approach to learning. Because travel takes you out of your comfort zone, “you are able to operate in the world much more freely and openly and productively as a result,” Miller said.

Boynton said he sees the EL seminars as the perfect extension to a liberal arts education, in that “when you travel and study, it’s a way of recognizing how an education is actually influencing you and how you are able to have … new vision of issues that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Added Miller: “What you come back with is a new foundation for learning.”

The application deadline for the Cuba and Berlin to Warsaw EL seminars has been extended to Dec. 1, 2016. Visit the EL seminars website for more information. 

Photo caption: Allegheny students and faculty during an Experiential Learning Seminar in Italy