Study abroad an experience of a lifetime

I’ve had a taste of Study Abroad, and I want more.

I tagged along on MCCC’s 2011 Study Abroad trip to Central Europe – 20 days in Austria, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

It was an experience of a lifetime for me, and confirmed that I want to be part of more trips with students.

It’s hard to find words to describe how cool it was exploring some of Europe’s greatest cities with a couple dozen college students and two amazing professors.

Vote on where the next Study Abroad trip should go

It’s one thing to walk down narrow, cobble-stoned streets between 500-year-old buildings, to sip coffee at sidewalk cafes on the edge of grand squares, or to visit historic sites where the world we know was shaped.

It’s quite another to see the towering cathedrals, majestic castles and spectacular scenes through the eyes of 19-year-olds, while an amazing art professor describes the artwork and architecture, and a dynamic political science professor explains the politics and culture.

 Story one

I could tell dozens of stories. But here are two:

One of our side trips was to Nowa Huta, a model Soviet city built on the outskirts of Krakow, Poland. The Soviet Union, fresh from taking over most of Central Europe after World War II, wanted to build an ideal city of the future to use as propaganda in convincing Poles that communism was a good thing.

During the height of the Soviet era, more than 40,000 people worked at the Vladamir Lenin Steelworks in the heart of Nowa Huta, which translates to “New Steel Mill.” But many of the steel workers became members of the Solidarity movement, and Nowa Huta was a hotbed of Solidarity protests, which eventually toppled the communist government.

Enter our tour guides, who turned out to be a seriously funny duo of young Poles. They were part comedians, part historians and part cultural commentators. They laughed their way through the tour, with the former Soviet leaders taking the brunt of the jokes.

They had a serious side, too. They admitted that Nowa Huta today is split between advocates of the emerging Democracy, and older folks who yearn for the good old days when they had free food, free medical care, a job and an apartment provided by the state.

This was an amazingly interesting place for Dr. Joanna Sabo and her comparative politics class. Where on earth could you find a better classroom for comparing political systems?  And Dr. Sabo was nothing short of brilliant, not letting a “teaching moment” pass without pointing out the significance, or challenging students to connect what they read in the textbook with what they were seeing, first-hand.

Story two

 When art professor Gary Wilson led a group of students into the Czech National Gallery in Prague, he didn’t really know what to expect. He has an incredible bank of art knowledge in his head, but this was a museum that he didn’t know much about.

The museum was huge. Just to have a place to start, we headed for the 19thcentury European art. The group of students had hardly passed through the archway into the exhibit when Professor Wilson stopped and nearly shouted, disturbing the hushed quiet.

He was standing before a large painting by Alfonse Mucha, one of his favorite artists.

“I almost danced a jig,” he explained later. “And the students were just as excited, seeing me get so excited.”

For the next three hours the professor treated the students to mini lectures on dozens of paintings and sculptures by the great artists – Picasso, Rodin, Gauguin, Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir and Klimt, among many others. He put each piece of art in context, explaining the brush strokes, the lines of the sculpture, and telling stories about when and where the artist was in his life at the time the artwork was completed.

At first, the museum employees seemed about to break up the tour. Professor Wilson was probably trampling their rules of museum etiquette. But when they realized how interesting he was, they began discreetly following along, listening in.

I never would have expected Prague to have a museum of this quality. But that’s the point of the trip – to learn. Prague’s castle district is the largest and among the most spectacular in the world. Between the 14thand 19thcenturies, Prague was one of the great cities of Europe, at one point the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.

There were way too many other highlights to mention, from the ancient baths in Budapest (yes, we went swimming) to the tragedy of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz; from a soccer match between teams in the Czech national league, to a mountain climb in the historic Carpathians.

What’s next

I’m hooked, and I’m now looking forward to 2013.

Where do professors Sabo and Wilson plan to go from here? That’s partly up to me, and to you.

I went on the Central Europe trip to learn how to lead the Study Abroad program. Dr. Sabo had announced that she wanted to turn the reigns over to someone else. I volunteered.

Thankfully, both professors Sabo and Wilson want to go along to teach during the next trip, planned for May 2013. So, I’ll lead the trip, and the three of us each will teach a class. I plan to offer a three-credit photojournalism course.  Students can take one, two or all three, for a total of nine credits.

This fall, we’re conducting a survey to help decide where the next trip should go. You can find the survey at this link:

Professors Sabo and Wilson have traveled with students to Western Europe (2007), Southeast Asia (2009), and Central Europe (2011). Where should we go next?

Please vote on your choice. And consider joining us in May 2013.

(Dan Shaw is an assistant professor of Journalism at MCCC and adviser of The Agora).