Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Study Abroad in Barcelona!

Barcelona, of course, has to be my first posting. I just hope I can figure out how to upload pictures to go with it!

I took my first group of Gordon College students to Barcelona in 2001. I'd started the program from scratch, and there was no one at my college to give me advice, although my colleagues at other Georgia colleges/universities helped me a great deal. But I bit off more than I could chew. I had 23 students, and I planned three MAJOR weekend trips for our four weeks there: Seville and Granada, Madrid, and Venice. All by bus, and if you've been to Europe, you realize that the American belief that Europe is relatively small is, in fact, relative. It took 15 hours to get to Seville and 17 to get to Venice. No bathroom on the bus, either.

When I returned, people would ask, "Was it fun?" I'd say, "No." In surprise, they'd ask, "Didn't you have a good time?" I'd say, "No." I told a colleague about these verbal exchanges, and her response was "But it was rewarding." Finally I could say, "Yes." Taking students to Barcelona is very rewarding, and now that the novelty of the city itself has worn off for me, the students are what keep me going. It's exciting to see them grow, to see them learn to communicate in Spanish and become independent as they learn to navigate their way around the city. Because they're so excited, they tend to be a lot more appreciative than the students who sit in my classroom 2 1/2 hours a week and conjugate verbs. Learning Spanish in Barcelona is quite different from learning it in a U.S. classroom. Students do go to class four hours a day, five days a week, but they don't get grammar crammed down their throats. They get a little grammar and practical vocabulary (like "beach towel"--Barcelona is on the Mediterranean; I remember one of my elementary Spanish textbooks having the word for "wrecking crane"), and then they have games and activities to help them internalize what they've learned and actually use it rather than just taking a test on it. Even students who have had no Spanish at all learn to communicate. They can't rattle it off like a native, but they can have conversations with the families they live with. And living with a Spanish family is an experience that most of my students thoroughly enjoy.

Now, let me share something with any parents who may have stumbled upon this blog in a search for info about sending their child abroad. First of all, I don't take students who are under 18. The U.S. is just too litigious for me to take that kind of risk. I've taken nearly 200 students during the past nine years, and I've returned with the same number. I've taken three students to the hospital (not that they were THAT sick, but there's no one doctor I could call up), one who had caught a bug, another who arrived with, uh, female problems, and another who had had a flare-up of tonsillitis just before departure. I've been fortunate, because accidents do happen. But they happen at home too.

I am very hands on, and I run a serious program. On my website between animated colored bullets are the words "WARNING! This is not a party program." I go on to tell students that while they are allowed to come and go as they please, they are required to be in class and alert every weekday morning at 9:30. My program application includes a long list of rules, not the least of which is that disturbing the host family because of intoxication will result in the expulsion of the student from the program. I warn students that their inhibitions will go down because they are 4000 miles from home and their parents and that they will tend to do in excess what they may do in moderation at home. I am at school most days, and when I am not, my assistant usually is. We know when students skip classes. If they stay out all night without warning their host family that they are going to do so, the host family calls the school, and the school calls me. In short, I do everything possible to make my presence felt and to let students know that I'm available if they need me and that I'm watching them.

However, I don't follow them around after school. If they choose to take off and not see me again until 9:30 the next day (or on Monday morning), that's their right. I can't keep them from drinking excessively. I can't keep them from picking up someone in a club. You can. If you haven't raised your child to make good, responsible decisions, don't expect me to be able to keep him from doing something stupid in Europe. I've had really good kids who don't yield to temptation, I've had good kids who do things they wouldn't do here but who don't go far enough to get into trouble, and I've had kids who are determined to do all the things there that they wish they could get away with doing here. My students look out for each other. Last year the guys decided that one of our girls was too cute and naive to be allowed on the metro alone, so they did their best to make sure she never was, although that didn't always work out. But you can't force anyone to do anything. Three guys who were friends before the trip had partying high on their agenda, but two realized that I meant business. During the week, when they had to get up early, those two would try to convince their friend that they needed to get home to get some sleep, but he would refuse to leave the club. So, unwilling to sacrifice their grade, they left him. He didn't get into any trouble, unless you call paying $3950 and getting an F trouble, but he easily could have. If you were this student's parent, what would you have done? Been upset with his friends for leaving him? Sued me if he'd gotten mugged on his drunken way home?
So, parents, the long and short of it is that, after you've checked out the program and made sure that there is a responsible adult who is on hand and not just on call, you need to be sure you've raised someone who is responsible and who won't do anything that could result in his getting hurt. If you haven't, then don't expect a study abroad director to do what you've failed to do.

OK, OK--off the soap box! (I have a lot of them, by the way.) I'm very excited about the program for this coming summer. I have two lovely young ladies who have just finished high school and started college and who want to become fluent in Spanish. One wants to teach, and the other wants to be a flight attendant. Another student came to my office asking for info and said that he can't wait and is going to get the money one way or another. I'd never met him before. One student began by saying she doesn't have the money, then asked about fundraising, and finally told me she's going even if she has to take out a loan. Study abroad is an incredible experience, and I wish all my serious students could go before they get bogged down with the responsibilities of adulthood. It changes their perspective and makes a real difference in their lives.
animated trio

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