College faculty members have a long tradition of chaperoning class trips. But a new program at Nichols brings those journeys to a new level, where students can explore real world issues and problems with the onsite benefit of their professors’ expertise.Over the past two years during spring break, Economics Professor Karol Gil-Vasquez has taken students to Greece and Portugal respectively in what’s emerged as a transatlantic series examining the economic crises of European countries over the past decade.
While Gil-Vasquez performed the typical chaperoning duties of keeping the trips organized and safe, she also brought her understanding of world economics to what her students learned along the way.
The approach of merging travel with faculty who make it more enlightening has become a fixture at Nichols and an emphatic statement that learning does not stop at the edge of the physical campus.
“Our goal is to do one of these trips a year across all disciplines. A lot of faculty are interested,” says Associate Dean for Business Luanne Westerling, who herself led a trip to England during the 2015 spring break as an extension of the leadership program that she directs.
“The students are able to see their classroom in action,” she explains.
Westerling, along with her fellow college deans and Office for International Engagement Director Susan Wayman, are making their annual selection from a growing number of applications from faculty members. Later this spring, that committee will decide on next year’s overseas trip.
It’s helped, Westerling points out, that participating students can use financial aid to cover travel expenses. She also emphasizes the considerable value added by the presence of faculty members with whom the students have likely taken a class and who serve as resident experts over the course of the trip.
That proved to be the case in the trip Gil-Vasquez led to Lisbon, Portugal in March. “Our agenda was to see how young people relate to the current political and economic crises in Europe,” she explains, noting that she and her students visited three businesses and attended three university lectures focused on the economic state of the country and the role that young adults can play.
One company that Vasquez chose collects leftover food and distributes it to the needy—and also provided the Nichols visitors with hands-on experience. “The students got to go to a distribution center and give out bags of food,” Gil-Vasquez reports. “We saw the contradictions of capitalism—the prosperous and the marginalized people in Lisbon. We learned that part of the story.”
“To actually go to a country that’s struggling and see it firsthand and talk to the people made it real,” says senior Sofia Piazza. “When we went over there, we were already prepped and educated. Professor Gil-Vasquez definitely knows about the European Union and the economy. It wasn’t as if we were going there for no reason.”
The emergence of a regular class trip to another country follows on the annual spring trip within the United States by juniors in the Nichols Honors Scholar Program. In March, the 17 participants spent a week in San Francisco with two professors who teach honors courses.
English Professor Kellie Deys, the director of the honors program, says the visit to a city that the students themselves choose extends their classroom learning.
“It’s a cultural experience in which they go explore an American city with the same analytical skills they have honed in the program,” Deys explains. “It helps supplement their critical and expansive thinking to use it in an experiential way.”
Brendan Coughlin points to the group’s first experiences in San Francisco as proof positive. “Seeing Alcatraz and being on the island was really cool. So was walking across the Golden Gate Bridge,” he says. “You could see how they were both ingrained in the city’s history.”
Rachael Fassnacht discovered an additional benefit. “We bonded as a group more than we could on campus,” she notes. “I actually celebrated my 21st birthday out there. I couldn’t have asked for more.”