Westmont Magazine My European Education
A few weeks into Europe Semester, I began expecting a given reaction from tour guides, bus drivers, and hotel clerks. They opened their eyes a little wider and asked “For how long?” or “To how many cities?” or “Students get credit for this?” As travel professionals repeatedly responded with shock, I came to understand the unique gift Westmont has in Europe Semester.
This extravaganza — learning, traveling, and growing in faith and in community — is difficult to imagine and to describe. My husband, Chris, and I were elated to join art Professor Tony Askew and his wife, Barbara, in leading a group last fall. But at times the planning and the logistics were daunting.
“Who on earth,” I wondered during late nights last summer, “would try to teach European Civilization to 42 college students while leading them on the Grand Tour — and adding a Jerusalem course in biblical studies?” I took comfort in the knowledge that plenty of perfectly sane Westmont faculty had not only led the trip, but decided to return again.
As we prepared for our first Europe Semester, my appreciation deepened for Westmont’s communal and intellectual wealth. While each trip is unique, the program happens every fall because it has happened for so many semesters in the past. Someone has planned a feasible curriculum, made contacts with hotel owners and tour guides, negotiated a budget in 15 different currencies, counseled students undergoing culture shock or roommate problems, and homeschooled faculty children on the road. No one needs to re-invent a semester-abroad wheel.
Other people’s stories were the most compelling inducement to lead Europe Semester. I had heard tales from students and faculty about amazing teaching experiences, spiritual and intellectual growth, rambunctious fun, and frustrations that turned into treasured memories.
Our trip was no different on those grounds. The sounds, images and sensations still roll through my head: The acoustics as we sang together in our first group worship in the 18th-century chapel at Trinity College, Dublin.
Idyllic weather and a sprinkling of Cambridge historical trivia from our punting guide as we floated down The Cam, learning to navigate the punts ourselves.
The late afternoon sun silhouetting a group of students painting and telling jokes on the dock outside Chillon Castle after our day around Lake Geneva.
Sitting in the café at the end of the tour of Anne Frank’s house, avoiding the typical Amsterdam rain, and talking in impromptu groups about tolerance, racism, nationalism and faith in God.
The intermission of La Traviata at the State Opera House in Prague as our group of Westmont opera novices reached for programs to refresh our memories on what we would see and hear in the second half of the production.
Our night tour of the illuminated monuments in Rome, when our guide Giovanni brilliantly managed the dual role of Roman historian and stand-up comic.
The warmth off the stones as the whole group sat, notebooks and pencils out, listening to our Jerusalem University College instructor talk about archeological and biblical evidence in the first century synagogue in Capernaum where Peter would have worshiped.
Not all Europe Semester stories portray international travel as glamorous and exhilarating; some suggest little in the way of quantifiable educational or spiritual enrichment. Those I hold closest grew out of moments when we were most tense, and they remind me we were a community of learning pilgrims.
The Stansted Airport outside London, for instance, is not one of Europe Semester’s most sought-after destinations. It took on a certain interest for us, as Tony Askew had taught us to recognize the handiwork of the architect Sir Norman Foster. Foster had also designed the Sainsbury Center Museum across the lawn from our rooms at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and is even better known as the architect of the renovated Reichstag in Berlin, which we looked forward to on our itinerary.
Still, the Stansted Airport is not exactly someplace travelers fantasize about staying for any length of time. After we had cleared international security, we heard our flight was delayed for two hours. There we were, 47 people very excited about getting to Paris and stuck in an airport lounge, watching through impeccably designed postmodern windows as other flights departed. Most students had eaten only a light breakfast several hours earlier and had spent the last of their British currency before we cleared security, leaving airport restaurants and cafés behind. We would be waiting through lunch hour, with only the prospect of a small airline snack to sustain us before clearing customs in Paris later that afternoon. Though they were clearly giddy with anticipation of Paris and showing some signs of hunger, the students cheerfully settled in to the spacious lounge for some imposed down time — playing cards and hackey sack, sketching, writing in journals, catching up on postcards, or napping.
The Askews and Chris and I were also trying to take advantage of the unexpected opportunity for relaxation. Before long, I realized the other three were doing the same thing I was: remembering stories from past leaders about how something as avoidable as low blood sugar or dehydration had understandably snowballed into longer-term morale problems.
Feeling a little foolish, Tony and I headed to the airport newsstand in search of some kind of preventive nourishment. The two of us found ourselves chuckling in the aisles of the small shop when we realized our only option was individual bags of potato chips and bottled water. The cashier was more than a little surprised when we carried our 50 chip bags to the counter, and Tony took out his credit card while I began emptying the shop cooler of all its water bottles.Walking back down the terminal, my sense of my own silliness increased. Our students were hungry, and tired, and impatient to get to a city they had long looked forward to, and we were offering them junk food in bite-sized portions.
As we started passing around these unusual rations in the boarding lounge, not a single student turned them down. We had guessed right that they were getting hungry, but hunger wasn’t the most apparent characteristic of their responses. They were grateful, and surprised that we had bothered with a small detail. Students got up to relieve us of armloads of chips and bottles, taking over the task of distribution so that we could go back to our seats if we wanted to. The afternoon brought a kind of experiential learning few of us had counted on: we knew some of the downside of international travel, and we also experienced the importance of small gestures in community, and of the long-term benefits of a little cheerfulness.
When we reached our youth hostel in Paris, we were thrilled to see that we were a block from the Louvre, and a little anxious to find out that some students were going to be sleeping 10 to a room, and all of us were in tiny quarters in bunk beds.
Not only that, the hostel had no suitable space for teaching, and we had planned three evening discussion sections while we were in Paris. These sessions were an opportunity to help students bring together the content of their reading and lecture, their experience of other cultures and some discussion of current European events. They had been some of the most fruitful teaching of the trip, and none of the faculty wanted to give them up for lack of space.
When time for our first class came, we decided to split into three groups and take our students to the courtyard of the Louvre, where we would hold classes on concrete benches and in broad stone doorsteps under the evening lights.
That night I had decided to lead a discussion of placards we had been seeing on the street that exhorted Parisians to boycott American business interests in France. The posters had named Levi, The Gap, and McDonalds, all American businesses that some of our students had come to look forward to as small refuges of familiarity in strange cities.
I opened the discussion with a translation of the placard to be sure they had understood what they had seen and with a brief reminder of how their text had covered the Marshall Plan and the history of 20th-century U.S. investments overseas. Together, we thought about American industry, and how it influenced impressions of us before we ever spoke to the people we were encountering through our travels.
Several of my students brought with them more extensive experiences as Westmont students overseas, on programs in Central America and in Asia. As a fountain sparkled in the background and international tourists wandered past us enjoying the beauty of the courtyard, every student seemed to have a story to tell, or an idea to share. Disagreement was high that night in our breathtaking classroom, and I was repeatedly struck by the group’s commitment to listen, to communicate their differences carefully enough to be heard, and to help each other better understand what it might mean that Westmont students are often perceived as wealthy young Americans, before anyone even considers them as people of faith. The discussion ended, as do so many Europe Semester conversations, not because we were finished talking, but because we had to move on to the next scheduled activity. That night we needed to catch a boat for an evening cruise on the Seine.
On board our batea-mouche, I heard several clusters of students carry on their conversations about American tourism and industry overseas as we cruised by the illuminated Notre Dame, the Musee D’Orsay and the Eiffel Tower. They were sharing bits of ideas from their own sections with students in other groups.
The thinking that started that evening on the concrete benches outside the Louvre stayed with several of them as they moved to the boat. They were a group of people living together, and talking about that life together in a setting that was new to most of them, and exhilarating to us all.
The pace of Europe Semester and the size of the group makes getting off the beaten track a little difficult. Occasionally a group gets fortunate and finds itself facing something truly novel. Last fall a friend of the Askews who had a house in Switzerland introduced us to hornussen, a sport unique to the Swiss farming community.
One Saturday afternoon, a busload of us headed out to a lush green Alpine pasture where, through an interpreter, we met the local hornussen team. One of our students described the sport best in a telephone call to her parents: “It’s a little like golf, but you’re trying to hit a hockey puck with a fishing rod.” Her description is unbelievably accurate, except that it leaves out the defense, who stand in the field with pizza paddles, trying to hit the puck back. We had a delightful time, though most of us still aren’t sure what game we played.
Europe Semester leaves its participants wondering in a variety of ways. I’m still mulling over some of the events of our trip, especially the outings that were much less light-hearted than our day of Swiss sports. It’s not quite accurate to say that I’m happy I took students to Dresden to see the damage done by Allied bombers in World War II, but I know I’d do it again. Many of us were brought to tears by the seemingly unending rows of white crosses at the American Military Cemetery outside of Cambridge, and yet the experience was a crucial part of one of the more wonderful days of the semester.
Is anyone glad to have gone with students to the concentration camp at Dachau, or to the Jewish ghetto and Gestapo prison in Terezin outside Prague? I met some of my most difficult, most lingering, and most productive questions of the trip on those two days as students came face to face with the problem of evil and of injustice on an unbelievable scale. Somberly and respectfully, student after student asked, “Why didn’t the Americans do something sooner?,” or “How could the Red Cross send in inspectors and so many people still not understand what was happening?,” or “I wonder why people want to visit such a place?” A few were bold enough to ask the question that many of the others implied: “Why did you make us come here?”
I knew the chronology of events. I knew some of the responses that World War II contemporaries had left us. I knew the arguments. At the time, I also knew I couldn’t give quick answers to those heartfelt questions. My words might have kept the people I had brought to those places from finding the answers they needed to come to on their own, or to continue seeking in God. I was left to stand by them, sometimes to cry with them, and to wonder myself at the seeming insufficiency of some of the responses that came to my mind.
By the time this issue of the Westmont magazine arrives in the mail, I’ll be in Dublin, Ireland, with a new group of students. As you read, I suspect I will be remembering what I told this group of students when I first met them last spring: “Europe Semester will not be all you expect it to be, but in many ways it will be more. Europe Semester will not be easy in ways you expect it to be, but it will be worth it.”