International program strengthens student experiences at The Woods

December 12th, 2011 | SMWC

Amira Jaradat is a senior studying journalism at The Woods.

Charlene Gerdes, a pre-law student at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, wanted to step outside of her comfort zone. “I wanted to be challenged on a daily basis,” Gerdes said. By participating in The Woods’ study abroad program, she has been able to do so, leaving the comfort of The Woods behind to spend a semester enjoying an entirely different educational experience.

Gerdes took courses at the University of Salzburg in Austria. “I love it so much here,” Gerdes said. “It's gorgeous and everyone is so friendly.” Gerdes had never been overseas before and was particularly impressed by the rich, European culture. “I think just being immersed in the Austrian culture and language has been one of the best experiences abroad so far.”

The Woods’ study abroad program works to expand students’ horizons by introducing them to different cultures around the world. By encouraging students to travel and to come into contact with new ideas, customs and professional techniques, the College aims to create well-rounded, globally-oriented students. The program cooperates with organizations all over the world to facilitate different classroom and practical experiences for its students.

In summer 2011, Sondra Blake, an elementary education major, completed a five-week program in Ireland organized by AHA International, an Oregon-based study abroad program.  “It’s really neat getting to go other places,” Blake said. “I saw more of the city life than I’d ever seen before, because I live in the country. I’m actually from Clinton; I live in the middle of the woods.”

Blake spent her summer living with a host family of two sisters in Dun Laoghaire, an Irish coastal town outside of Dublin. There, she studied Irish history and film, and participated in weekly organized excursions to local sites of cultural significance. “It was nice taking the history course,” Blake said, “because whatever we talked about in the history course on Monday and Tuesday, we’d go somewhere that was related on Wednesday, before doing a recap on Thursday.”

Besides learning about Ireland through lessons and trips, Blake was further immersed in the nation’s culture simply by getting to know the Irish people themselves. “People there were very interested to hear what I had to say,” she said. ”They like hearing us talk just as much as we like hearing them talk!” Some of the people she met there also provided her with some of her most memorable experiences abroad. “I actually did get to drive one of the cars,” she said with a grin. “It’s on the opposite side of the road and you sit on the opposite side of the car!”

Participating in The Woods’ study abroad program was the first time Blake had ever left the United States. Even so, she enjoyed her time in Dun Laoghaire so much that she decided to go back just a couple of months later in October to spend her fall break reconnecting with the friends she made there. “You have enough time to go out and interact with people,” she said.  “You meet so many people while you’re out doing things. It’s so much fun.”

In addition to giving students the chance to experience other cultures and societies firsthand, a long-standing goal of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College is to foster global consciousness in its students. Cathleen Flynn, a junior studying Music Therapy, had the chance to learn more about the conditions faced by those in other parts of the world during a ten-day trip to Jamaica.

Before joining the Jamaica Field Service Project, Flynn first consulted with her music therapy advisor to make sure she had the experience necessary to participate. “It took some talking with her to decide if it would be something I was ready for in a practical way,” Flynn said. “In small colleges, often people know you better who can help you with preparing for these experiences... You’re not just a number in a crowd.”

During her time in Jamaica, Flynn co-led a number of music therapy sessions in an infirmary. “Part of our preparation beforehand was learning tons of old Jamaican folk music, so that would be songs they were familiar with.” Flynn said. “They were always really pleasantly surprised, like ‘Oh hey, you know our music!’” Sometimes, if the students only knew part of a song, the patients would teach them the remaining verses.

“It wasn’t music therapy in the same way that I’ve experienced it in my field sites here in the States,” Flynn said. “As students, it was very validating, because some of these people were so deprived of any type of interaction that anything we did, we just got these great responses.” Flynn, who generally enjoys travelling and is very interested in service work, looks back fondly on her short trip abroad. Not only did it broaden her perspectives on music therapy, but it was also a meaningful and memorable experience.

“The more that you can know about what’s going on in different places, the more that you can be able to contribute to your community and your profession,” she said.

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