MCCC students visit Spain, Portugal

Spain and Portugal are home to picturesque beaches, religious clashes and many cultural delights.

This year's MCCC Study Abroad trip offered students the opportunity to experience the sights of these two countries.

The 28-member group included MCCC students, faculty and community members.

"It was wonderful," said Brooke Sweeney, an MCCC alumnus who was also a student on MCCC's study abroad to Central Europe in 2011.

"It was kind of nice to see the different comparisons of Europe," the University of Michigan student said. "I could never say that one was better than the other."

The biennial Study Abroad trip offers students the opportunity to immerse themselves in another culture through studying abroad. In all of MCCC's tours, the college has partnered with Education First, an international travel organization that offers learning experiences for college students.

After MCCC's study abroad to Central Europe in 2011, a survey was given to students asking where they should go next. The far western European countries – Spain and Portugal – were the winners.

"We chose Spain because of the language and because of its unique place in history," said Dan Shaw, assistant professor of journalism and the group leader for the trip.

Students could earn a total of nine credit hours while traveling abroad. Three courses were offered, aimed at providing outside-the-classroom experiences within the fields of journalism, art and political science. Professors who taught courses included political science professor Dr. Joanna Sabo, art professor Gary Wilson, and Shaw.

Dr. Sabo offered a course in comparative politics, which involves comparing governments around the world.

In one of their classes, the tour guide became the teacher. Guide Pilar Arizaga taught the students about her native country, Chile, in a lunchtime lecture.

"Here they are visiting two countries and learning about another," Dr. Sabo said. "That was a really good teaching moment."

The cities visited by the MCCC group were Lisbon, Portugal, and Madrid, Granada, Cordoba, Seville, Toledo and Barcelona, Spain. They also took side trips to Evora, Portugal, to see Roman ruins and Montserrat, Spain, the site of a famous monastery.

"Each town had its specialty to show us," said Annetta Pawlak, a community member who joined the trip.

The trip's first stop was Lisbon.

"Americans don't think about Portugal much," Shaw said. "Lisbon was an amazing city with incredible history and culture. One of the buildings the group visited there was an 11th century cathedral.

" You get a really powerful sense of history."

Much of Spain's culture was formed by the centuries of conflict between Muslim Moors and their Christian conquerors. Shaw said that Spain is one of the best places in the world to see examples of the contact between Christians and Muslims.

One such example is the Mezquita de Cordoba. Once a mosque and now a cathedral, it was the capital of the Moorish empire in the 10th century. Row after row of granite and alabaster columns adorned the interior of this Muslim bastion.

"They give you a feeling of endless space," Shaw said.

The Mezquita did not remain a Muslim palace, however. Christians conquered the region and built over the existing structure. Shaw described a walk through the building as stepping from a Muslim palace into a 15th century Christian cathedral.

An MCCC student recounted her experience at the Plaza de Espana in Seville.

"It was so colorful. It was just incredible," Katie Gerweck said about the Spanish square.

Another destination the group toured was Toledo, Ohio's sister city: Toledo, Spain.

"That city was just stunning," Wilson said.

Dr. Sabo recounted an unexpected discovery while visiting Toledo. She said group members were walking through a cathedral when they saw a case of saint relics – objects considered to be blessed. To her surprise, a glass prism from Toledo, Ohio, was buried along with the artifacts.

Also, while the group was in Toledo, a protest demonstration occupied the city's central square. Due to the country's struggling economy, protests have become common. The square was filled with angry bank employees infuriated over pay cuts.

One treasure in Spain's art history is El Greco's painting of " The Burial of the Count of Orgaz," which also is located in Toledo.

While on the trip, Mr. Wilson taught an art appreciation class.

"That was certainly one of his most significant paintings," he said of the El Greco piece.

Students not only walked through the country's cities and sights, but also its cuisine.

Dinnertime in Spain is during the daytime. Unlike the grab-and-go nature of America's mealtimes, this occasion also is seen as a time to relax and socialize with others.

"We really enjoyed that. The pace of life is a little slower," Shaw said. " You get the feeling they got it right and we can benefit by learning from them."

Regina Torti, an adjunct professor at MCCC, also joined the tour. A coffee lover, she was surprised to find that coffee is not served in a to-go cup. Spaniards tend to pour their coffee into a ceramic cup and take time to sip it while sitting down with friends in a relaxed environment.

From open-air meat markets to street musicians, much of the cultural activity is outside.

"It was so nice to go to different towns and walk around neighborhoods," Torti said.

"People enjoyed being outside more," said Richard Pawlak, Annetta's husband. " We walked an average of six to eight miles a day."

Near Barcelona, the couple witnessed a special scene in Spanish culture.

They shared their account through an e-mail:

"He rode along the narrow street on a small Vespa (motorbike). He blew a sharp whistle. We saw a lady come out and approach him with a knife and scissors. He sharpened them on the grinding wheel attached to the backside of the motor bike, which also ran the sharpening."

One student acquired a taste for a particular food: "Before I left for the trip, I did not like olives," Brooke Sweeney said.

However, that taste changed over the course of nearly three weeks in Spain, where olives are everywhere.

"I fell in love with green olives," she said.

For one faculty member, a broken dream became a restored reality. When Dr. Sabo was in college, she was awarded a scholarship to study in Spain, but she wasn't able to travel there because of health reasons.

Thirty years later, she finally had the chance to go.

"I had no idea I was going to love those two countries as much as I did," she said.