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Learning Through Helping

A new academic honor will recognize achievements in service learning

By Steve Plever

Jizi

Alexandra Neidermeier '11 visits the "Sólfar" sculpture in Reykjavík, Iceland

 

 

In a remote area of Belize, a dozen UNC Asheville students and three faculty members put their belongings into waterproof bags and entered a small river that runs near ancient Mayan ruins. This study abroad group had already visited jaguar reserves, hiked through rainforests and searched for frogs, snakes, and spiders in the jungle at night, but this day's outing was something completely different—a history lesson that could only be fully appreciated firsthand.

Following a guide, they cautiously waded through the water as it passed through a two-mile-deep cave so narrow that their bodies could barely fit between the rocks. Inside, they were met by the sight of a woman's skeleton that archeologists believe was a willing sacrifice from centuries ago.

Study abroad trips like this—and others that are arranged by individual students—are opportunities in which learning, immersion and a sense of adventure intersect to create some of the most powerful educational experiences possible.

Environmental Studies Professor Kitti Reynolds and the group spent two weeks over winter break visiting the Central American nation's ecosystems from grass savannahs, to rainforests, to coastal mangrove habitats. "But we couldn't pass up the opportunity to share the country's history," said Reynolds. While visiting the ruins, the professors taught students about ecological factors that influenced the Mayan culture's growth and the society's disappearance.

This year, the UNC Asheville Study Abroad office has organized eight faculty-led trips like this, including a month-long art and architecture appreciation session at Cambridge University in England, an archeology trip to Italy, and a five-week cultural exploration trip to Ghana.

"For many students, these faculty-led programs are their first experiences outside the United States," said Bonnie Parker, director of UNC Asheville's Study Abroad office. "And many of them will later do independent study abroad trips of their own making, often spending a semester or even up to a year studying at other universities around the world."

This year, 171 UNC Asheville students signed up for study abroad trips, the same number as last year. More than half are independent trips, put together by Parker's office and the students who want to complement their courses of study.

"In general, our students choose some of the less common study abroad destinations," says Parker. "For U.S. students, Australia is one of the most commonly visited countries, but many UNC Asheville students opt for destinations in Africa and Asia. This year, we even have a couple of students studying in Cuba."

Last summer, Asian Studies minor Caitlin Bradley arranged a seven-week mini-semester to learn to speak Korean at Sogang University in South Korea. UNC Asheville did not already have an existing exchange program with Sogang, but the Study Abroad department coordinated with Bradley and Sogang ahead of her departure to ensure that her courses would be accepted.

"Arriving in Seoul was a shock for me," she said. "I've lived all my life in Asheville, and going to a city that size was overwhelming. I've never seen buildings that big or so many people in the same place. My friend was talking to me as we were riding the bus from the airport, but I didn't hear a word she said. I was just too busy staring out the window with my jaw wide open." It's that total immersion that many study abroad students crave, and it's what makes the experience so valuable—not just seeing the culture of a different country, but moving with it.

Bradley fell in love with South Korea during her brief stay. After graduating in May, she already has plans to return to South Korea this summer to teach English. "It's something I want to do, because I want to travel more," she said. "I want to try something else."

 

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