I had no idea five years ago I would wake up at 6am on a Sunday in Barcelona, Spain to arrive on time to catch a train for a 2 1/2 hour ride to the base of the Pyrenees mountain range to prepare for a weekend of hiking with a colleague and the some students who decided to come along too. Looking back I think I would have told myself then, ‘You’re barmy! Why would you do that?” The answers to that question are a bit more complicated than I thought.
When I saw the directional sign saying it was 3 hours and 22 minutes to Nuria it reminded me of the first time I hiked this route with Lindsey, Zarbab, Kathy, Felix and Eddie last year. I was taken back to the relationship had built with Lindsey over four years and her recent graduation to the University of Tennessee to begin her doctoral studies. Felx graduated this year too, it was a mixture of pride at having had these relationships and loss because they moved on, but that is life is n’t it. It goes on, but I only learned this when others came and went and the world still turned. I did not expect these memories to come up, but they did and as quickly as they visited me I felt them and allowed them to leave without upset. What did I learn from these moments? The unexpected steps at the beginning brought mixed emotions but for good reasons. The warmth reminded me of the good times, and the missing helped me realize there were good times. In both ways the feelings were positive.
Refuges Are Friends
On the way up to the valley there are a series of refuges cut out of the rock enough for several hikers to seek refuge. I found them to be a metaphor for experiences I had during my time as a study abroad faculty leader. Four years ago my Mother died. Last year a close friend of mine died and yesterday Don Hellison a mentor and guide who had a profound influence on my life and partly responsible for my rise academically passed away peacefully. Summer reminds me of loss and transition. During these times having a positive mission as a teacher with a focus on what I am doing and the way I work have acted as a refuge for me because I take comfort in service and being alive to serve. Being a teacher is a mission for me. It is beyond a job. It is a purpose. But even when I love what I do, like a sailor in a boat seeking safe harbor in a bad storm, these cuts in the rock for safety from harm reminded me of taking refuge with my friends and loved ones when I needed to. I have found through leading study abroad programs when times come I need my friends and family around me and they are not there. I turn to the beauty of nature and the arts as refuges when I feel a storm on me like I do at the time of writing this post.
The Payoff is Huge
Had I not led any study abroad programs I would not have been inspired to teach with such creativity or to create ever more challenging conditions to raise the content awareness, critical thinking qualities and resilience in my students and myself. I have learned some Spanish, gained experiences and insights unimaginable to my mind before my first program to Dublin. I am more confident, humble and curious now than before I began leading these programs because to operate in ambiguity has been to compel myself to learn for clarity and meaning. I have worked with students from 13 different countries who spoke 9 different languages from all kinds of backgrounds and disciplines. I have learned so much from them in ways I did not think of. For example, Kevin Chin (Barcelona 2016) gave Kristin (my girlfriend) and I a tour of Chinatown Chicago (his neighborhood) and led us through a fantastic Chinese meal neither of us had experienced before. Ash Rao and Courtney Ban (both Barcelona 2017) completed their honors projects with me. Teoadora Markovska (Barcelona 2016) was accepted to graduate school helped by her study abroad experience. Adam Soto (Barcelona 2016) gained confidence which helped him graduate. These and so many stories illuminating any dark days I have in my job during the regular academic year. I have learned from peers and colleagues in Catalonia and Andalusia too. They have shown me different ways of teaching, thinking, being and experiencing as a professional and as a person. Their freshness helped me grow and see things differently and mostly more clearly when Ifelt confused about a specific area of the program we wre designing and implementing too. I have enduring relationships with former students because of the experiences we shared. I had three amazing teaching assistants in Arin, Lindsey and now Lauren. Each bright and capable with a different take on how we should do things and encouraged me to rethink things. I have seen things in the world and myself I never imagined I might see. The picture of Nuria rising up over the lip of the hill after a 3 hour hike never gets tired for me. My payoff are all the things above and they happened because I chose to lead study abroad programs in 2012-13.
I borrowed the sub title above from Javier on this program because it sums up the value of leading a study abroad program. I get paid less for teaching it, I receive no formal credit from my institution for the service and work it takes to organize and lead the program. But the payoff are the experiences, insights and relationships I have gained since the beginning. Without students these experiences would not have happened. In one way I learned that faculty leadership is not possible without students to lead. Therefore being student centered is the place to begin in how I approach the way forward when envisioning a program experience like I will for the future programs in Costa Rica.
When my time’s up and I am not able to lead programs anymore I will have a body of experience to take with me through this life and the next. That’s a huge payoff.