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Pencils and passports Even brief travel seminars can transform learning
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Pencils and passports
Today's Skidmore students are likely to need both

by Pamela Babcock

Spring break isn’t what it used to be. These days, a number of Skidmore students spend their breaks overseas, and they take along their classmates and professors. Recent examples: a tropical-ecology class spent a week in Costa Rica, a politics and anthropology course featured a two-week trip to Tanzania, and the course “From Marx to Coca-Cola: Transitions in Germany and Poland” included a visit with a key figure in the fall of the Iron Curtain: former Polish president Lech Walesa.

Rachel Taylor ’09, a theater major who took the course on Germany and Poland, reports, “The professors just packed so much into the short visit. We were able to learn so much because we actually experienced the places and talked directly to people affected by the events we were studying.”

Last January government professor Aldo Vacs and Spanish professor Paty Rubio led a trip to Argentina and Chile that was integrated with coursework on the development of cities like La Plata, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and Valparaíso. Rubio explains, “It’s one thing to read about the violations of human rights during the dictatorship in Argentina, but when you visit the former torture center, that makes a very big impact. Theory suddenly becomes practice.”

Speaking of impact: Mary Bates ’02 originally planned a career in human psychology, but a senior-year study trip to Costa Rica’s Monteverde cloud forest changed that. She was eager to see an exotic tropical ecosystem and work with local scientists on everything from frogs to orchids. But then, late one night, Bates was assigned to examine dozens of captured bats and record data about their sex, weight, and species. She’d never seen a bat up close, much less held one. “The experience never left me,” she says. She completed her senior honors thesis with a human neuropsychology experiment, but she’s now working with bats in her PhD research at Brown University.

Overseas study of all kinds has grown dramatically at Skidmore. About 60 percent of the class of 2007 spent at least one term abroad. Government professor Roy H. Ginsberg says several of them were majors in disciplines you might not expect, like anthropology, biology, business, and studio art, and Cori Filson, director of off-campus study and exchanges, has seen a marked increase in study in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where few Skidmore students used to go.

It’s not just a junior-year phenomenon either. More sophomores and seniors are participating, because the college has made a concerted effort to ensure that study abroad contributes directly to the credit requirements of each student’s Skidmore career. In fact in 2005 Skidmore undertook a strategic restructuring of study abroad. Each academic department now keeps a list of approved programs that will complement the study plans of its majors.

The short programs have a special asset: the Skidmore faculty leaders. Political scientist Chris Whann and anthropologist Gerry Erchak co-taught and co-led two trips in 2005 and 2006: “Chocolate and Gold” to Ghana and “Safaris, Slaves, and Spice” to Tanzania, each trip encompassing history and culture, government and economics, health and social policy. Each was a two-credit course on campus during the spring, with an optional spring-break trip in March for an additional one credit. Whann says all but two of the students who enrolled in the courses chose to go on the trips.

“The trips were transformative for Chris and me, as well as for the students,” notes Erchak. Eliza Hatch ’06, who went on both, says they helped focus her interests at a time when “I hadn’t a clue what to do with my life.” She soon settled on a double major in government and psychology, using her Africa experiences in an independent study about HIV/AIDS treatment and policies around the world. “The experiences helped me learn a little bit about other cultures and a lot about myself,” she says. “They increased my empathy and enabled me to understand cultural relations better.” They also helped Hatch land her current job: as a safari specialist with a Tanzanian company that operates tours and helps build schools. Eventually she hopes to work in international health and development.

For students in the course co-taught by business professor Ela Lepkowska-White and German professor Mary-Elizabeth O’Brien, the highlight of the spring-break trip was meeting Lech Walesa, the labor activist (and Nobel laureate) turned president, in Gdansk, the capital of his Solidarity movement. Walesa spoke with Skidmore students for more than an hour. “He challenged us to act in ways that positively affect the world today,” recalls O’Brien, a former director of Skidmore’s international-affairs program. “He suggested that the students are capable of becoming the type of just and principled leaders who are desperately needed to bring peace to all people.”

In Berlin the class toured an old prison run by the East German secret police, in the company of Hans-Eberhard Zahn, a former political prisoner. Zahn ushered the fourteen students and two professors to his former basement cell—a tiny, windowless room—and spoke of his desperation and how reciting poems helped him to survive.

Before the trip, each student had chosen a project to focus on. Rachel Taylor ’09 studied the ways marketing has changed in Eastern Europe since its shift from communism to capitalism. With faculty help she scheduled a meeting with a Polish businessman to discuss the topic.

While Ginsberg acknowledges the national debate over the value of short-term versus longer study-abroad experiences, most at Skidmore agree that short trips are very useful for certain students—science majors, for instance, whose schedules are packed with required courses and labs. Biologist Monica Raveret-Richter, who co-led the Costa Rica visit with anthropologist Chris Grassi, adds that such trips can be “a great chance for students to try out something and see if they want to dig into it more deeply.” Short jaunts also can whet the appetite for longer stints overseas. Jordan Calabro ’10 built on the Costa Rica trip by arranging a trip to Madagascar this summer to work with Patricia C. Wright, a prominent scientist, explorer, and conservationist who’d visited campus as a guest speaker in the course.

One drawback to the short overseas outings is affordability. According to Cori Filson, a week’s study in Puerto Rico and a three-week trip to India planned for next January will cost $2,700 and $4,000 respectively. Students in the 134 approved programs for semester- or yearlong study pay their regular Skidmore tuition, room, and board fees, including any discounts from financial aid. But Filson reports that currently financial aid can be applied to just 50 percent of the shorter trips’ costs (that’s up from zero coverage in the past, but far less than Filson would prefer). Raveret-Richter recalls, “We almost weren’t able to go on my last trip because we had a terrible problem with funding. Most of my students were on financial aid. Fortunately we were able to get money from another source.”

It certainly was a good investment for Mary Bates, who just finished her second PhD year at Brown. And Chris Whann is already planning his next travel seminar. He says he’d love to see more of his fellow faculty members leading such trips, because “these transformative experiences bring about what the strategic plan wants to accomplish with its commitment to intercultural and global understanding.”