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Liberal Education with a Passport

 

Reinventing Liberal Education
A National Symposium
November 22-23, 2013
University of Miami
Miami, Florida

 

James Blakeley, St. Joseph’s College
Thomas Petriano, St. Joseph’s College
Wendy C. Turgeon, St. Joseph’s College

Mark Twain observed, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”1 How true this quip is for those of us who have had the opportunity to travel. We have gained a better understanding of the importance of a liberal-arts education and committed ourselves to overcoming prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. We teach at a college that strives to prepare students for a life characterized by “integrity, spiritual and intellectual values, service, and social responsibility.” Many colleges and universities have a similar mission. St. Joseph’s College has made a concerted effort to encourage students to become engaged global citizens. Our college seeks to achieve this in the spirit of the LEAP Initiative.2 Three ways in which we link our core mission with the LEAP Initiative include: the travel experience in our Honors Program, the Freshman Travel Course, and an ongoing service learning relationship which links a range of courses to service in Nicaragua. It is in the fulfillment of our mission for those five core values that our components of global learning serve well. This article will outline these three initiatives.

Our Students

All of the students of St. Joseph’s College (SJC) are commuters and many have not ventured beyond their hometowns. Indeed a number of them have never been to New York City, which is less than 50 miles from the college. Thus it is not surprising that they have never been to a foreign country. SJC wants to prepare students for meaningful careers, enrich their lives, and give them a sense of global citizenship that extends from their local communities

Honors Program

Our Honors Program focuses on creating a learning community during the freshmen and sophomore years. A cohort of approximately 25 selected honors students share five common classes together that are in addition to their other courses needed to complete their schedules. Our goals for the honors program are:

  • Forming a learning community
  • Weaving ideas from a range of disciplines, including history, philosophy, art and music history, political science, and interdisciplinary courses in the liberal arts3
  • Encouraging a spirit of intellectual adventure by taking courses not necessarily related to prospective majors
  • Meeting the needs of our most gifted students

In the fall of their second year, our honors students take a one-credit seminar the topic of which concerns the destination of their trip in the spring. Guests lecture on topics related to the culture, history, art, and society of the places that the students will visit. While the trip is not a requirement of the Honors Program,4 most students are able to participate. Our specific goals for the trip include:

  • Adventuring outside the country/ learning to be independent through self-guided explorations
  • Exploring the cultural roots of Western Civilization face to face
  • Experiential learning: encountering an unfamiliar culture and geography
  • Bonding as a learning community

Our venues have included Puerto Rico, Ireland, Paris, Prague and Krakow, and Rome and Florence. When the students return, they demonstrate the transformative nature of their experiences when they make a formal presentation to the college community. Moreover, our Honors students remain friends and colleagues into their junior and senior years where their major requirements preclude taking cohort classes. Not surprisingly, once they have experienced the world outside of their local communities many of our students have availed themselves of other travel programs offered through our office of Global Studies.

Freshman Travel Course

In 2009 the head of Global Studies, Steve Fuchs, proposed that we develop a course specifically geared to freshmen to encourage them to travel and expand their learning experiences beyond the classroom. The hope was that once a student had traveled, he or she would be more likely to continue to do so. Several faculty responded to this challenge and the first course we offered was “Self and Society in Ancient Greece and Rome” co-taught by history and philosophy professors. This has alternated with a course focusing on Spain and the three cultures of the medieval period. Originally limited to freshmen, the travel course includes an online reading and discussion component during the spring semester. The group also meets a number of times during the term for discussion and to become familiar with their “three-dimensional selves” after beginning to form bonds via online discussion. In May, the group experiences a 10-day to 2-week trip during which other learning projects,5 journals and a capstone essay were initiated and completed. Our goals for this special course include:

  • Encouraging our newest students to explore the world beyond Long Island
  • Engaging them intellectually, emotionally, psychologically in their own learning
  • Encountering another culture face to face
  • Connecting across campuses: Long Island and Brooklyn students join forces in these courses
  • Scholarship Opportunity: needy students can apply for some assistance to help with the cost of the trip

We find that students who participate in this program do indeed begin to plan their next travel abroad experience. Some sign up for a summer or semester abroad. Now entering its fifth year we are looking forward to working with the 15 students who have enrolled in the history/philosophy course and who will be traveling and learning in Rome and around Greece in May.

The Nicaragua Project

Winston Churchill is purported to have once said, “You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.” Though there is no evidence that he actually said these words, there is a record of a speech he gave in Dundee, Scotland on Oct. 19, 1908, in which he said, “What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?”6

George D. Kuh (AACU, 2008) has identified two of the ten identified as “high impact practices” are: Service Learning and Diversity/Global Learning. The Nicaragua Project developed at St. Joseph’s is one that encompasses both of these practices. Beginning in 2007, students have traveled to the town of Sutiava, Nicaragua near the city of León. The project began as an alternative Spring Break which was part of a service learning course called “Latin America at the Crossroads: From Colonization to Globalization.”

The course was an interdisciplinary course that could be taken for Religious Studies or Spanish credit. One of the challenges in designing this service-learning course was to plan a service course around a curriculum based on two humanities disciplines, Religious Studies and Spanish. The common theme that emerged was the idea of human rights. Using examples from Latin American history, literature, politics (from colonization to globalization) liberation theology, and the history of human rights a curriculum was developed that revolved around a required service project. Students had a choice7 of working with a Latino population in the local community or traveling to Nicaragua during spring break. Borrowing a theme from liberation theology, the course was taught as dialectic between praxis and reflection. Both were integral components of the course. That course has now been offered four times, and other interdisciplinary service courses have developed from it; notably a Political Science/Spanish course on the revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua, an English Literature/Spanish course on Women Writers of Resistance and a Political Science/Spanish course on Border Cultures.

As each of these courses developed, certain common themes became paramount for each course and its accompanying service component. First and foremost was a strong emphasis on the connection between the classroom and the community where the service was taking place. The community became an extension of the classroom. This connection could only be effectively realized by a regular practice of reflection. Pre-reflection8 is always essential. During the project itself there is time for regular nightly reflection, and upon returning home, students gather to process their experience through discussion, and then present a final portfolio.9

The distinction often made between justice and charity in the Theology of Liberation has been very helpful in encouraging students to think about the larger issues underlying the experiences of poverty that they encounter in their visits to Sutiaba. In the context of our course this has involved extensive discussion of the causes and effects of the Sandinista revolution as well as direct efforts to establish a genuine partnership with the people of the community based on reciprocity and a true listening to their needs rather than our own predisposed ideas of what they need. In emphasizing the need to understand not just the effects of poverty (charity) but the causes (justice), we strive to avoid what Robert Lufton (2012) calls “toxic charity” and what has become know as “poverty tourism .”10

Much has been learned, since the initial service-learning program in Sutiaba in 2007. There have been 8 formal visits to the community by students involved in service learning. Students who have graduated have formed a Nicaragua Alumni organization to help support a pre-school (named “San José” by the people of the community) as well as the establishment of some 72 scholarships for students to attend a local private school, and a newly initiated micro-loan program to help young teens previously involved in drugs to establish their own small businesses. In addition, a series of personal stories written by women of the community along with students and faculty from St. Joseph’s has been published in a book called, Latinas Escriben.11 Even more amazing has been seeing our students return with a desire to learn more and do more. One student recently finished law school and is working as a human rights lawyer. Other students have become involved in Teach for America and Math for America and many are on the path to becoming what Kahne and Westheimer12 call “justice oriented citizens.”

The caveat in developing global service learning programs is that it can easily lead to what Eric Hartman and Richard Kiely (2012) refer to as a cementing of “structures of power and privilege” and which when “depoliticized serves simply as a glorified welfare system.” As Hartman and Kiely point out, it is easy for both students and faculty to fall into “simplistic and charity-focused versions of service-learning that focus on individual relationships only, with no attention to broader systemic pressures.” Avoiding this tendency is a constant challenge and one that calls for a “critical global engagement” that necessarily entails an ongoing struggle aimed at disrupting, decolonizing and transforming historical, linguistic, structural, cultural, and institutional arrangements that cause harm.”

Much has been done, much has been learned, but much more needs to be done in developing programs of critical global engagement. Encouraging our newest college students to see the value of their liberal arts education beyond job preparation entails developing in our students broad historical and cultural knowledge, an appreciation of differences, and a willingness to engage with others from distant cultures and places. Our freshman travel course and our Honors Program both nurture this openness to the Other through study and travel. Reciprocity, respect, and reflection together with humility and true partnership will remain essential components of the Nicaragua Project and other programs that will develop from it as we work toward a liberal education that forms and transforms our students into critically engaged global citizens with a passport that brings them across all borders of separateness and into a sense of shared global citizenship.

 

References

1The Innocents Abroad, as quoted on http://www.twainquotes.com/Travel.html

2A chart of the ways in which SJC has sought to intersect our goals for global education with the AACU LEAP Initiative follows:

AACU LEAP Initiative St Joseph’s College Global Education Programs
First-Year Seminars and Experiences: our SJC100 topical seminar
Common Intellectual Experiences: shared courses in Honors
Learning Communities: in the Honors and in the Freshman Travel Course experience as well as in the Nicaragua Project
Writing-Intensive Courses
Collaborative Assignments and Projects: Honors and the FTE are both highly interactive with many opportunities for group interaction
Undergraduate Research
Diversity/Global Learning: the value of on-site experiences
Service Learning, Community-Based Learning: the Nicaragua Project
Internships
Capstone Courses and Projects: the value of the LA201 for Honors, collaborative projects during the Freshman Travel Experience and the Reflective piece in the Nicaragua Project.
Common Intellectual Experiences: shared learning and service through travel

3Choosing courses requires that we avoid typically AP subjects so that there is the maximum chance that our Honors students will not have taken these courses beforehand.

4The students are required to pay half the cost of the trip as the college generously covers 50% of the expense.

5Examples include museum assignments in teams where students are responsible to become our resident “experts” on their museum. On our visit to the Sistine Chapter, each student came prepared with researched knowledge of one of the panels to share with the other students after the site visit.

6 www.notable-quotes.com/c/churchill_sir_winston.html

7The alternative was offered to students who could either not afford the trip to Nicaragua or who had work/family obligations that precluded their absence for that period.

8One example of such pre-reflection is student discussion of Ivan Illich’s 1968 address to Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects in Cuernavaca, Mexico, “To Hell With Good Intentions.” www.southwestern.edu/live/files/1158

9The article “A Chameleon with Complex: Searching for Transformation in International Service Learning” by Richard Kiely has been especially helpful in post travel reflection. (Michigan Journal of Service Learning, Vol. 10, Issue 2, Spring 2004).

10See “Poverty Tourism: A Debate in Need of Typological Nuance”, in “Staying for Tea, August 17, 2010 at: www.stayingfortea.org/2010/08/17/poverty-tourism-a-debate-in-need-of-typological-nuance/

11This book is available from www.herstorywriters.org/Magazines.html

12See Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne, “What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy” www.civicsurvey.org/sites/default/files/publications/what_kind_of_citizen.pdf for a discussion of the difference between the “personally responsible citizen,” the “participatory citizen” and the “justice oriented” citizen

Kuh, George D. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. AAC&U, 2008.

Hartman, E. and Kiely, R. “Interrogating Global Citizenship”, included in M. Johnson and P. M. Green (Eds.), Crossing boundaries: Tension and Transformation in International Service-learning. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing (2012).

Robert Lufton, Toxic Charity. Harper Collins, 2012.