Monday, June 3, 2013

of travel and education

So, as I hinted in my last post, a friend and I are hoping to put together a summer study-abroad course for the Honors program next year, although I won't know until fall whether it's going to be approved or not. Summer programs are the only kind of study abroad we have at Misnomer U.; anything during the regular semester is too long, too much time away from regular coursework, maybe also too scary for our students. So the Spanish program used to do one-month immersion programs in Mexico, until Mexico also became too scary; now they go to Spain instead. And the residential Honors program -- one of the few programs here that isn't run on a shoestring, thanks to a generous legacy from an alumna -- spends a month in various, though most often English-speaking, destinations in western Europe. This is a required component of residential Honors, and it's also totally free for many of the students apart from food and incidental expenses, and heavily subsidized for the others (it depends on exactly which scholarship they hold).

In four years of interviewing applicants for the Honors scholarships, I've learned that this is a huge draw for some of them and a huge source of anxiety for some of the others -- there is usually at least one student in every group who says that they are not interested in residential Honors because the study abroad component scares them. Sometimes my co-interviewers have tried to talk them out of it; I have never done so, since there are always plenty of other students who would love to go on the trip, and I'd just as soon save the scarce slots in this program for the ones who do want them, badly. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the ones who don't want to travel are the ones who most need to do so. God knows, a lot of the fear seems to be passed down from parent to child -- and it was my good luck that I was born to parents who talked me out of being afraid, who took me to Europe and the Dominican Republic when I was a teenager, and then gave me the push I needed to go on that Christmas break trip to the Bahamas with my high school marine biology class (because in Fairfax County, Virginia -- a place that now seems very far away -- even public schools do that sort of class trip).

So I went to the Bahamas, and had a wonderful time. And then, when I was a sophomore in college, I went to Spain for a semester, and hated it for the first six weeks, and loved it for the last eight. I did everything wrong in some ways, being too shy to speak as much Spanish as I should have done or to socialize with strangers, but it was still life-changing. Spain was where I learned how to handle myself -- how to tell if that guy cat-calling you is harmless or scary, how to drink in bars without turning yourself into an obviously-drunk target, how to deal with police and insurance companies after your purse gets snatched, how to be a stranger in a strange land. And it was reading Lorca on the all-night train to Granada, and feeling the hush that falls over people when they're in the presence of Guernica, and going to see El dia de la bestia without English subtitles and wondering what the hell that was all about. And it was orange trees, and lilacs, and little dishes of olives, and fireworks, and dirty city beaches, and a blizzard of pigeons in the square behind the cathedral.

We don't give our students all of that. We don't even give them a new language to dream in. We give them a lot of activities and excursions, and probably not even enough time to feel displaced. We give them, more or less, what my parents gave me on my first whistle-stop tour of Europe -- a glimpse, a taste, a safe space in which to see a little of the world. And maybe it's just as well; maybe that is what they need first, and bigger adventures can come later.

1 comment:

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I think you're right. That safe space is what the summer-abroad program I sometimes teach in gives our students. A few of them are willing to jump right in. Others are frightened, and their families worry terribly, in a way I have to think about to grasp. I mean, to me, coming out of Heathrow and getting on the bus to some university town is pretty much commonplace, but if you've grown up in a very rough part of a big rough city, even getting to college is the result (probably) of parents setting draconian rules just to make sure you don't get shot, never mind actually getting schoolwork done. Talking to some of the students on the program last summer made me re-think some of my assumptions about helicopter parents. Behavior that seems laughable to the middle and upper classes is, literally, a matter of survival in some other contexts. I keep thinking I've adapted to my students, and then something like that comes up and reveals my privilege all over again.