Education In and Beyond the Classroom
Travel Program Heightens Students’ Global Awareness
Ian Shipp, whose prior foreign travel had been only to Mexico, never expected to find himself in the heart of Europe, within arm’s reach of an original Picasso painting. But when he heard about the Maricopa Community Colleges Student Education Abroad program, he knew instantly it would be a fun and exciting opportunity to broaden his knowledge of the world.
“Seeing as how I had never been to Europe before and had the chance to visit multiple countries known for their great culture and beautifully historic cities, at a better cost than I could book on my own, it was a trip I couldn’t miss,” he said.
Shipp, who got his Associate of Arts degree in May 2013, was part of the 2013 program, “A Glimpse into the European Union.” He heard about it from Kirt Shineman, who taught his Interpersonal Communication class. Shineman, a GCC teacher for more than 18 years, led the trip in 2013 and will lead another trip this year. The trips are under the auspices of Mesa Community College.
The four-week program features visits to five European countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Students pay for the cost of travel, housing and enrollment in two three-credit classes: Elements of Intercultural Communication and Introduction to International Business.
Classroom All Around
Some participants in last year’s trip had travelled extensively, while some still lived with their parents and never had left the Phoenix area before. Ages ranged from a 17-year-old old recent high-school graduate to a woman in her late 50s.
Students were housed two to a room in gender-specific dorms. Each group had a shared kitchen and shared bathrooms. The “classroom” was wherever they went.
“One of the great things about Belgium is that it’s the political and economic center with the European Union being housed there,” said Shineman. The group visited the E.U. Parliament, where they met at least three prime minister/parliament representatives. They also went to the NATO headquarters.
Almost every day included an excursion to a business. Destinations included a cigar-making factory. The students’ visit was featured in a local newspaper.
Dolly Marden, a student services specialist who works in the GCC Business Services office, played a special role in connecting the group with local resources. Marden was born in Belgium, and her extended family still lives there. Prior to the trip, she connected Shineman with Leen Gysen, her cousin, who lives near Leuven, a college town in Belgium.
Gysen met up with the students and took them on a walking tour of Antwerp, including the museum and cathedral. She even served the students a meal in her home. And her husband, an art conservator who focuses on restoring artwork from the 1400s to modern times, welcomed the group into his studio and showed how they do the restoration. (They just happened to be working on a Picasso.)
Marden sees traveling as an education in itself, and she was pleased her cousin could connect with the GCC students personally and give them something they might not have gotten otherwise. “If you can connect with local people, beyond just the shopkeepers, it opens your eyes,” she said. “You learn about other cultures, other ways of thinking, and that it’s OK for other people to think differently; isn’t that what travel’s all about?”
Not in Kansas Anymore
Despite the warm welcome, students quickly felt the differences, especially since nobody in the group spoke French, Flemish or German. Nor was language the only barrier; they also saw first-hand how different life can be in other cultures.
Lessons in Getting Around
Everyone got a local bus pass and maps. Between cities, they travelled on trains; reading schedules was a necessity. Without the luxury of personal vehicles, they learned to be disciplined to get to the bus or train on time. Prior assumptions (“It will wait for me a little bit, right?”) were quickly abandoned by those who didn’t make it to the station on time. Others got off at the wrong stop. (All eventually were found and returned safely home, no worse for the wear.)
After arriving in Amsterdam by train, they rented bikes and embarked on a tour. Some of the youngest students had never been on a bike before. Packed with tourists, the bike lanes required vigilance.
“I was surprised to learn how much Europeans rely on public transportation,” said Shipp. “While we did see a handful of cars, most of the natives rely on the bus and trains to reach their destinations, and it’s very convenient and affordable.”
But the most significant difference: In Europe, people walk….a lot. When asked, “How are we going to get there,” Shineman explained that first they would take the bus, and then they would walk. And not just across campus; usually the distances were much greater than Americans are accustomed to, especially in automobile-dependent places like Phoenix.
Oh, and chapter two of the lesson about walking: How to navigate in the rain, an unfamiliar obstacle for many who live in the desert.
Cultural differences arose throughout the trip. “I think one thing that surprised many of us was having to pay for water and the restroom,” said Shipp. “Back home we take these things for granted, so it was an interesting new perspective for many of us.”
Adventures in Eating
The students came together regularly for “group nights,” in which Shineman or others would cook. But first, they went grocery shopping, itself a learning experience. One difference: In the United States, milk is usually kept in the refrigerator section of the store. In Europe, it’s typically pasteurized and packaged in waxed cardboard boxes that sit on grocery shelves.
Those still living at home and unaccustomed to grocery-shopping noticed that costs quickly added up. Some shifted to taking water with them instead of buying it from a machine.
Everything was smaller. But maybe not small enough; carting bulky provisions home from the store quickly became a logistical challenge. Students learned to think about how much they were purchasing and how they were going to transport everything home.
“At first, the shopping experience was really cool,” said Shineman. “But by the second or third week, some tired of struggling over that.” Restaurants were an option. Two brothers on the trip got into a routine of going to the same Italian restaurant, where they traded language lessons with the waitress. Others checked out gyro shops or neighborhood pizza joints.
Culinary outings often prompted camaraderie. “One of the funniest moments was dining with my friend, Ricky, who made the mistake of ordering a raw meat dish not once, but three times, and listening to chefs explain how it was a delicacy, all while we attempted to not laugh,” said Shipp.
Learning Life Skills and Creating Memories
Daily life prompted many other lessons, including the banking system; how to get money, how to negotiate the exchange rate and which banks require higher fees for currency exchange. Students mastered the local Laundromat. One girl broke a tooth, providing experience in navigating the local healthcare system.
At night, some of the students went to clubs, where they experienced the nightlife and socialized with other college students who were attending local schools. Many agreed the European students are more globally and politically aware, and know their geography much better than do students in the U.S.
GCC students and professors bonded quickly; most went out of their way to interact socially with the group. Shipp recalled a favorite moment during the night of Bastille Day, the French national holiday which celebrates the beginning of the French Revolution. “Our group got together to watch the fireworks along the river, and afterwards, a handful of us found ourselves at an outside dance party; it was amusing to see everyone celebrating and having a great night,” he said.
Experiences as Diverse as Expectations
“As I expected, I learned a lot – not only about new cultures and destinations and what my courses would offer, but also new things about myself,” said Shipp. He saw similarities but also many differences. And he learned the importance of becoming less ethnocentric, rather than assuming that U.S. culture is superior to the practices and ideals of other cultures.
Students shared their reflections in final essays. “I didn’t expect as much diversity,” said one, noting the presence of a significant population of Gypsies (Romas), especially in Brussels.
Another recalled an assigned scavenger hunt in which they were to find a Baptist church. “We found mosques and Catholic churches, but it was hard to find a Baptist church in France and Belgium, and Protestant churches were scarce in Germany,” wrote the student.
Some were surprised to find gender roles less equitable than in the U.S., noting European restaurant etiquette still centers on asking a male for his female companion’s order and presenting the bill to the man.
But perhaps one of the biggest surprises was how much study was expected; it wasn’t unusual to have a quiz due right on the heels of an excursion. One thing that was consistent with life back home: some got straight As, and others, not so much. Homework proved to be an essential part of the trip.
Shipp has become a passionate advocate of travel, convinced that excitement and new experiences outweigh any worries and hesitations. “I came to understand that the world is a massive place and the only way you can genuinely understand it is through your travels,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you go, just go somewhere, get out of your comfort zone and try something new while you’re still young.”
If you’re looking to make new friends, to create lifelong memories, and to open your mind, consider studying abroad. This year’s trip is scheduled for July 7 to August 1.
Learn more at an information session on April 12, or contact Kirt Shineman, firstname.lastname@example.org or 623-845-3653.