It has long been a goal of the UIW’s Honors Program to hold honors classes overseas at the European Study Center (ESC) in Heidelberg, Germany. This summer, that goal came to be as professors and five honors students traveled to this beautiful site for intense study and to engage in service at nonprofit organizations.
“Students who signed up for this class were committed to it as part of a living experience,” said Dr. Hector Perez, associate professor of English. “There was no need for formal office hours. Class discussions flowed more easily because of this enhanced rapport.”
Dr. Glenn Ambrose, associate professor of religious studies, said the environment “truly created a learning community”: “My course simply would not have been the same had it been taught on the UIW main campus.”
The students echoed this sentiment, reporting how they connected the region’s historical sites with classroom study, bringing deeper meaning to their learning. Sophomore Clarisa Salinas said she became more sensitized after visiting the Natzweiler-Struthoff concentration camp. “I have a new appreciation for what happened,” Salinas said.
Both Ambrose and Perez developed customized approaches to take advantage of the particular resources in the Heidelberg region. Perez chose to incorporate into class a work based on historical fact, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” reflecting on the Holocaust. Ambrose developed a new course, “Christianity and Global Justice,” for the ESC.
Beyond the courses, students endeavored to get involved in the new culture as citizens and not just tourists. Senior Cassidy Fritts researched the Heidelberg area prior to the trip to develop service opportunities for students while studying abroad.
The result of Fritts’ efforts was two-fold. First, she and other students volunteered at two local organizations, Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut (DAI) and AEGEE. DAI promotes English language learning and education and is involved with helping refugees learn German and English. There, Fritts found herself working with teenagers, preparing them for a public workshop for a local farmers’ market. AEGEE is a European student union with chapters at universities throughout Europe to promote a democratic, diverse and borderless Europe. The group had just started brainstorming how to reach out to the refugee community, so Fritts was able to connect AEGEE students to DAI Heidelberg to help them coordinate future events with refugees.
Second, Fritts built a bridge for future ESC students to add community service to their study abroad experiences. The ESC program director, Marketa Lepicovsky, followed up on these connections and met with each group individually, inviting AEGEE to hold their meetings at the ESC and offering DAI the possibility of an intern from among students studying at the center. These relationships are anticipated to continue long into the future.
The Honors Program was able to attract students for the summer semester, partly because of the program’s new study abroad scholarship, initiated by students. Three of the five attendees were recipients of the inaugural offer.
Two years ago, then junior Erica Cioti ’16 BS was inspired by a fundraiser she watched grow in her hometown and thought Honors could duplicate it to raise money for a study abroad scholarship. Thus, the Pumpkin Patch was born in Fall 2014 as an addition to the popular Trunk or Treat event that the Alumni and Parent Relations Office sponsors at Halloween each year. The team of student volunteers offered a variety of activities for attending families at a nominal fee, including a ball toss, soccer goals, and pumpkin painting. Students are determined to keep the event evolving in its activities and growing in revenues each year. The Honors Program will also add the proceeds of their annual Arts & Music Festival to the scholarship fund. The festival is an official homecoming event that celebrates UIW’s artistic community.
“We are very pleased that we now have this study abroad scholarship to offer our students,” said Jean Loden, Honors Program director. “Study abroad has been one of those experiences that we would like all our students to have, but it is often out of reach financially. It is indicative of the caliber and curiosity of our students that they are the ones who found a way to make this scholarship happen.”
Certainly, the honors students enjoyed their experience at the ESC and have been encouraging peers to have their own international experiences. In addition to intellectual growth, the students identified growth in their sense of independence and self-confidence by navigating the many aspects of everyday life in a foreign country.
“I learned a lot about myself and how to manage the myriad of emotions that come up when I am unsure of my situation,” said Salinas. “I’ve learned to trust my instincts.” An important lesson for our future community leaders and citizens of the world.
The next phase for the Honors Program internationally is a 12-day faculty-led trip aligned with the honors course, Seminar on Social and Political Thought, beginning in 2017 and continuing in odd-numbered years. A shorter option like this can provide busy honors students, often squeezing internships and research fellowships into the summer months, a viable opportunity to enjoy a life-enhancing experience in a different culture.