By Andrew Tsou
UPPER BURRELL, Pa. – During the 2011 spring break, 45 students, faculty, staff and alumni from Penn State New Kensington spent a week in Spain.
The trip was organized by Bill Hamilton, the Assistant Professor of Biology at PSNK, and Maria Franco-de Gomez, the Instructor of Spanish at PSNK. In past years, students have traveled to countries such as Italy, China, and France.
“We asked students where they wanted to go,” Franco-de Gomez, said, “We had a survey, asked for suggestions, and went from there. We went to the countries that were suggested most often, if possible.” For example, according to Franco-de Gomez, Australia was a popular choice among students one year, but the flight would have been too long for the short timeframe available.
According to Franco-de Gomez, the international trips are associated with the university’s focus on academics.
“There’s always a class required for the trips,” Franco-de Gomez said, “Sometimes we offer more than one. For example, when we went to China, there was an art class and a philosophy class.”
Arlene Hall, the Director of Academic Affairs at PSNK, said that this class requirement is important for the international experience.
“In order for us to have an international experience, we need faculty to lead the groups, because it’s our practice to embed these experiences in an academic course,” Hall said, “When I first came into this office as the DAA in 2001, the only international trips that were available were through University Park. And I made the commitment to engage faculty, to ensure that we had at least one academic embedded trip abroad, each year, and that I would support that by supporting the faculty to arrange and embed the experience in their courses.”
This academic requirement creates a lot of work for the faculty involved in planning the trips.
“Every trip has to have a course that’s sponsoring it, so we have to have a detailed syllabus,” Hamilton said, “We have to say what the students going on the trip…will do, we have to indicate where we are going to be staying, how we are going to get there…so it all starts with what we want to do, and then the university approves it, and we start filling in all the blanks.”
Along with providing an educational experience, diversity is a major impetus behind the trips, according to Franco-de Gomez.
“We decided that most students in this campus come from rural areas, and we thought these trips would help open their eyes to new cultures,” Franco-de Gomez said.
“In some ways, our students come from very non-diverse backgrounds,” Hall agreed, “Western Pa. doesn’t have a very diverse population. So anytime you can get students to have an opportunity to move into a diverse environment, that’s a learning experience, one that I think forever changes them, because now they look at how things are in a different part of the world. I’m sure the food was different for students. The language was different. With each city that they visited, they got an understanding for the history of the region.”
Everyone came away from the trip with a different place or experience that they found particularly memorable.
“For me, La Alhambra was amazing to see,” Franco-de Gomez said, “The way they built it, all the science and mathematics they used for the building. It’s hard to believe that they did that.”
“The La Alhambra was pretty cool,” Shanna Williams, a psychology major at PSNK, agreed. “Especially because the whole thing wasn’t indoors. You got to walk around outside, and they had the fountains and stuff. They had fountains everywhere in Spain. I thought those were really pretty too. I wish we had fountains here. We don’t have anything like that here. We don’t have those big beautiful churches, we don’t have fountains.”
However, Williams said that her “favorite thing was definitely the churches, especially the cathedral in Seville, because it was just so detailed and immaculate. It was really intriguing to see what they could do before they had the technology we have today, not to mention just how it’s lasted all these years. The preservation’s pretty amazing.”
Other travelers also appreciated the history of the sights in Spain.
“Seeing the buildings that were constructed back in the 12th and 13th centuries, that are still standing and still operational, is something that we don’t have in this country,” Hall said, “As far as we go back is 300 and some years. Our history is relatively short compared to the history in Europe.”
“I loved just thinking about the fact that here, when we see things that are old, they’re not nearly as old as Europe,” Amy Rustic, the Reference Librarian at PSNK, agreed, “We have things here that are a couple hundred years old, and they have things that are many, many, many hundred years old.” Rustic added that she “loved walking around Granada. I loved the maze of the streets. I just loved all of the hidden back places and back ways you could walk.”
Not everyone’s favorite memory was of a specific place. Hamilton said that one of his best memories of the trip came after viewing Guernica, a painting by Picasso.
“We all just wanted to sit somewhere, and we went in the hallway and they had these funny block things to sit on,” Hamilton said, “There were about six of us sitting there, talking about art, talking about our old college experiences. We had a lovely 40 minutes or so, just resting … before we plunged into the next part of the day. I think those were the best parts.”
Most travelers tended to stay in small groups during free time. The large number of people on the trip had its pros and cons.
“I felt that the group didn’t have the opportunity to connect well as a group,” Franco-de Gomez said, “I didn’t have the opportunity to talk with several students about their impressions of the trip.”
“I think many of our smaller gatherings were the best,” Hamilton agreed, “Because when you have a group of 45 and get all 45 together, you can’t really talk to everyone. You can’t interact with them. The way we planned this trip was to have a group activity and then as much individual time as possible.”
However, according to Hall, the large group size was necessary in order to reduce the cost of the trip.
“For smaller groups, the cost goes up significantly,” Hall said, “Thirty-five and over is what they use for the large groups, and if you took a group of 12 students, that would double the price for the trip, and that would price some students out of the trip. That’s the reason why we include alumni and faculty: to bring the cost down for the trip.”
The low cost of the trip was one of the reasons cited by those travelers who said that PSNK students should take advantage of future international trips.
“We put together a $4,000 trip for $2,000,” Hamilton said, “Most of that was Maria, who’s marvelous in the negotiations to get the trip prices down. Then we looked around for grant money to get that reduced even further. This year, most students got $400 off of that price, and so for $1,600 you got a week in Spain.
“You got airfare, you got the opportunity to be in a foreign country, you had the opportunity to be immersed in a foreign culture, and that doesn’t just happen. That is a deal that is just beyond belief. So I strongly recommend that anybody who has that opportunity should take it. I know money’s hard to get, but it’s definitely worth it.”
“It was definitely worth the money,” Williams agreed, “How can you see that many cities and that many sights in that amount of time for that amount of money anywhere else? Besides, you’re in college. If you’re going to go on a trip like that, now’s the time to do it, because once you settle down, it becomes less and less likely.
“Not to mention that once you graduate you won’t have the money, because you’re going to be looking for a job and not be able to do it for a while. If you have the impulse to do it, do it now.”
Rustic agreed that travel is important for college students.
“For students in particular, it’s a great opportunity to see something that’s different from what you see every day,” Rustic said, “I think these trips are a great segue way into doing a study abroad program, which I think is very important and was very important to my development. When I graduated college, I did a study abroad program, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.”
Despite some unforeseen setbacks, the group had a positive experience.
“It was a good trip,” Hamilton said, “At the end it was hammered by the weather; that was unexpected. It was supposed to be the dry season. But I think everyone maintained their sense of humor and maintained their sense of adventure.”