Learning Through Cultural Immersion: Short-Term Study Abroad
Imagine the power of studying British paintings in the English village of Wroxton or the medieval philosophy in “Medieval Manhattan” San Gimignano, Italy. Consider the impact of visiting the sites of Bloody Sunday or the Easter uprising for perspective on Ireland’s turbulent past, or conducting field work in Belize to gain appreciation for biological and cultural diversity.
When you see the world as your classroom, the opportunities for learning are endless. That’s the spirit of study abroad, and the reason Merrimack offers a wide array of options at different times of year, often with career preparation or service-learning components.
In the 2011–2012 academic year, 122 Merrimack students participated in a study abroad program, and a little more than a half selected a short-term option. Lauren Bent, Director of the Office of International Programs, notes that enrollment in short-term programs is growing rapidly—mirroring the national trend as reported in the 2012 Open Doors Report conducted by the Institute of International Education.
Many motivations, many outcomes
Merrimack students select the short-term study abroad option for many reasons, among them, lower expenses and the ability to balance other commitments. Short-term programs also offer students a great way to test drive the study abroad experience—helping them better determine if they’d like to pursue a full semester or year abroad.
Bent recommends study abroad for all students across all majors, saying that it “expands their understanding of themselves, the world, and critical global issues. Study abroad experiences help prepare students to contribute and compete in a global society.”
The benefits of well-conceived study abroad experiences cannot be overestimated. Adjunct professor and ’09 graduate Elisa Kirschhoffer participated in the very first Crossing Borders program to learn about the peaceful co-existence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Medieval Spain. “I never imagined that this quick little trip would be a life-altering journey for me. In the months prior to leaving, we studied the period of peace among the Jews, Christians, and Muslims living in Southern Spain in 700-1500 CE.”
“Once in Spain, the history was made tangible in the architecture, food, and other aspects of the culture of Andalusian region. We visited mosques, churches, and synagogues. I never expected to be so moved by a place, history, or culture, particularly since I’d already traveled a lot with little more to show for it than great memories.” The Crossing Borders experience is designed to help students internalize and spread the themes of religious tolerance, understanding, and appreciation—all essential in helping make conflict among religious groups a thing of the past.
Sarah Wooley ’14, a double major in Athletic Training and Spanish, realized the benefits of cultural immersion during her participation in Crossing Borders. “A trip highlight was my stay with host families in Spain and Morocco, which really helped me engage in their culture. My favorite aspect, though, was interacting with students in Morocco who were around my age. This experience complemented my academics. Seeing things firsthand that I’d learned about in class gave me a greater appreciation for them.”
Another flagship short-term study abroad program is the annual pilgrimage to Pellegrinaggio, Italy. To personally experience the Augustinian characteristics of community, spirituality, and service, Merrimack pilgrims visit sites that were important to St. Augustine of Hippo Regius and Augustinian friars. Father Jim Wenzel led the first pilgrimage in March of 2000. Since that time, more than 400 alumni, faculty, staff, and students across the extended Merrimack community have participated in this distinctive learning opportunity.
Father Wenzel comments, “I think it is unique to have representatives from all areas of the College, young and old, students, and faculty. It has pleased me very much to see that each year, a distinct community of friends develops and grows prior to and especially during the journey itself. It is truly representative of St. Augustine’s emphasis on a community of friends as a distinct locus for the presence of God.”
Students prepare for the pilgrimage by participating in pretrip monthly seminars. In addition to traveling to Spain and Morocco, Sarah Wooley also took advantage of the opportunity to travel to Italy this past spring.
This year, the Pellegrinaggio trip happened to fall on Holy Week. Father Wenzel expressed the thrill of being in Rome from the Wednesday of Holy Week until Easter Sunday and participating in Liturgies celebrated by newly elected Pope Francis. “There was even greater joy in Rome because of Francis’ recent election as Pope. It was an electrifying experience. This opportunity allowed our participants to understand that we are a worldwide church.”
“Study abroad is recommended for all students across all majors who wish to expand their understanding of themselves, the world, and critical global issues,” says Bent. “As St. Augustine said, ‘The world is a book, and the person who does not travel reads only one page.’ In that vein, we hope our students take advantage of opportunities to be well-read, well-traveled global citizens.”