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Travelling for credits – the only way to fly

(November 18, 1999, Gazette)

By Kelley Power

Excitement! Adventure! Learning about peoples in foreign countries!

Am I plugging the latest issue of National Geographic? Not exactly. What I’m talking about is something a little more personal: an experience available to you, not through the pages of a magazine, but rather within the courses of study offered at Memorial.

Business and Engineering list firms in the Netherlands and Scotland as potential employers in their co-op programs. Various language departments offer their students the opportunity to travel abroad and immerse themselves in an atmosphere where the language of study is spoken by the local populous. Last but not least is the semester of study at Harlow, the curriculum of which changes according to the department(s) in residence.

Between L’Institut Frecker, Harlow, student exchange programs, field schools and work terms, almost any student in any faculty can travel outside of Newfoundland, either within Canada or abroad, and receive university credit while doing it. Haven’t you ever wondered why MUN provides such a wide range of opportunities for students to pursue a period of study off-campus?

Well, I wouldn’t presume to speak for the university, but I can tell you from my own experience what a student can take away from studies off-campus. Keep in mind that I’m probably a little biased when it comes to citing the benefits of studying abroad – the travel bug bit me a long time ago and I’ve not hesitated to scratch the itch – but, in truth, I don’t believe that my personal enjoyment of travel has led me to perceive value where there is none. Although if you are a globetrotter you’ll probably enjoy an out-of-classroom experience even more.

No matter what your attitude toward travel, some benefits of studying off-campus for credits are universal. For example, few would argue that encountering the reality of a place and its people is a vastly different experience than being taught in the comparatively sterile environment of a classroom. That is why the Classics department undertakes field schools in Greece and students of Russian or German are offered the chance to travel to St. Petersburg, Russia, or Heidelberg, Germany, respectively. Even if it is only for a short time, immersion in a foreign culture can broaden our understanding of it in a way that would be impossible were we left to simply visualize it from afar.

In the Geography department, a course of field studies was necessary for all students up until the 1970s. Now, only honours students need the course. But aside from the annually offered field course, which takes place on the province’s West Coast, the department has offered field schools in a variety of locations over the years: Spain, Barbados, Ireland and Malta have all been destinations.

When I spoke to Karyn Butler, head of the Geography department, she explained some of the general principles of these field schools. She said such trips offer the student an opportunity to see a different part of the world and to do so in an organized fashion and, though structured, the experience goes above and beyond anything offered in a tour package. Preparation is also important. Prior to departure, instructors strive to inform students of the fact and fiction surrounding their destination. Said Ms. Butler, “People can get roped into stereotypes. This is a university course and it is important that the student has a balanced outlook.”

So, an excursion abroad is obviously an educational experience. Having participated in Geography’s 1999 Ireland field school, I can tell you that travelling abroad with a group of peers can be very enlightening. I hate to say it, but living in Newfoundland is like living in a bubble: We have relatively little crime, we have little ethnic diversity – sometimes it feels as if we’re insulated from the real world. Mingling with and studying cultures different from our own is a way to rupture that bubble and, at the same time, develop an appreciation for the distinctiveness of our own society.

Leaving the familiarity and comforts of home to work or to participate in a field school is also an excellent way to improve interpersonal skills and increase responsibility. Being in an unfamiliar place forces you to become more attentive and be always aware of your surroundings, two skills that sometimes go untried when you are in a familiar environment. Most important, at least in my experience, is that you develop a previously unimaginable amount of patience. By the end of my trip, I found myself tolerating things that would have sent me off the deep end had I been home.

Of course, even the best abroad experiences have their drawbacks. Close-quarters accommodations, restrictive scheduling and the occasional bout of homesickness can all contribute to some pretty tense moments both among students and between students and instructors. If the idea of these problems doesn’t discourage someone from taking part in an out-of-province jaunt, then the cost usually will. In addition to the amount necessary to cover local transportation, accommodations, entry fees and airfare, a weak Canadian dollar usually means a very poor exchange rate, and who wants to travel abroad without lots of spending money?

In most cases, then, participating in an off-campus field school or exchange program will mean incurring more debt. However, there is funding available for students who travel abroad as part of educational programs. Organized efforts at fundraising can also be very effective in reducing costs. I know it sounds like I’m trying to downplay the whole debt issue – well, I am. The opportunity to travel to a foreign country and discover it, not as a tourist, but as a student learning from scholars and professionals, is rare and really only available through a teaching institution.

If that means the student loan increases a little more, then so be it.

Of all the money I never had for university, I consider the cash for my field school fees the best spent.