Geneseo faculty first led students on journeys of discovery abroad 45 years ago. Adventures of learning, self-reflection and global understanding have transformed students ever since.
By Kris Dreessen
The summer after his graduation, Jim Leary ’75 traveled to Italy to learn about The Age of Dante Alighieri with Bill Cook and Ron Herzman — two young professors who would become world-renowned scholars.
Leary and other students studied the poet’s great works in the presence of Roman, medieval and Renaissance ruins, buildings and history, and admired ornate frescoes painted by Michelangelo. Leary went on to earn a master’s degree, coach at the Naval Academy and traveled to dozens of international locations in his 37-year career managing and leading law firms, but that trip was unequaled.
“It was the best educational experience I ever had,” says Leary, a former Geneseo Foundation board member. “I was immersed in a foreign country, learning in incredible sites. I saw the artwork I had learned about in a book and traced the footsteps of Dante. I was living the subject.”
That was one of three early trips run by Cook and Herzman, both emeriti Distinguished Teaching Professors, in the mid-1970s, when study abroad at Geneseo was an informal, DIY endeavor.
Forty-five years after that fledgling Italy trip, Leary could choose study abroad experiences in 35 countries on six continents. Geneseo offers more than 60 programs for students to learn, live and gain global experience in academic courses and experiential learning.
Options grow as students increasingly choose to engage in foreign learning experiences: More than 37 percent of students participate in study abroad while attending Geneseo, according to the International Institute for Education’s Open Door Report. In 2018-2019, nearly 550 students participated in study abroad programs.
“Geneseo prioritizes international experiences in addition to existing diversity on campus because it exposes students to knowledge specific to history and cultural traditions and an introduction to a worldview that may be different than theirs,” says Sam Cardamone, director of study abroad. “They also build important skills, like communication and empathy. It allows students to not only navigate diversity in their own country, but navigate diversity around the world.”
The experience, say faculty and alumni, is always eye-opening and frequently inspires students long after the flight home. For some, their journeys inspired their career and lifestyle. The Scene takes a look at the evolution and impact of study abroad, and how the College has adapted during the pandemic.
The early days and evolution
Cook and Herzman’s European journeys were among the first led by faculty at Geneseo — and Robert Dietrich ’69 was one of the first students to study internationally. He spent his sophomore year at the Institute for European Studies in Vienna, Austria, living with an Austrian family, attending classes and traveling with professors to important landmarks throughout Europe.
He credits Professor Emeritus of Mathematics Paul Neureiter, a native Austrian, for encouraging him to apply, in a time when it wasn’t common to study internationally. (Neureiter’s family established a scholarship in 2018 for students to study abroad. Like Jim Leary, Dietrich says being immersed in what he was learning was wondrous.
“To be where history was made was an education all by itself,” he says. “It was the most exciting and beneficial time of my life. I came back so confident. I had a wanderlust for travel and I still do.”
Dietrich was told he was the first SUNY student to study abroad. He’s unsure if it’s true but he’s proud of the possible distinction, as he went on to explore the world for adventure and as the executive officer for the Northeast region for the Department of Defense. Now retired, Dietrich still travels extensively with his wife and appreciates discovering similarities and differences among people and cultures. He hopes one day every Geneseo student can study abroad.
Dietrich and faculty members who planned those first trips were “pioneers” in international study, says Cardamone.
Back then, Geneseo had no coordinated institutional effort, but faculty, including emeritus Professor of English Tom Greenfield, led students to where they had built meaningful connections.
“We made it up it as we went along,” remembers Herzman, half joking. “We liked teaching in Italy so much it became our bread and butter for 40 years. It was important to us, I think, because Cook and I profited greatly from the trips we had taken studying abroad.”
And, the payoff for the pain of planning it all in the early days was worth it.
“It is interesting to see a group of travelers come into their own and become much more aware of the world,” says Herzman. “That’s the best reason for study abroad. It was then and it holds up now.”
The College developed a strategic vision in the 1990s to create comprehensive internationalization opportunities for students on and off campus, says Cardamone, making it a priority. That included establishing formal partnerships with other SUNY and international institutions, so Geneseo students could easily enroll in more and diverse options.
Never enough time … for the smorgasbord of adventures
Geneseo’s more than 60 available study abroad options for students read like a smorgasbord of experiences — theater in London, Spanish language in Ecuador and spending an academic year among city high rises at South Korea’s Sogang University or the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Geneseo has partnerships with more than 35 institutions, either through SUNY or a direct agreement. Every year, Geneseo faculty lead an average of 20 programs as diverse in topic as they are location. (See below for a sampling.)
One of the reasons Geneseo’s study abroad program is so strong, says Cardamone, is that faculty draw on their expertise and professional relationships they’ve built over years to create remarkable experiences. International education professionals in his office help faculty maximize learning and immersion opportunities.
That innovation has allowed Geneseo to expand courses offered in destinations less traveled in study abroad — such as humanities in Nicaragua, “Race and the Black Experience in the Americas” in Cuba and a robust partnership for student opportunities in Ghana.
The School of Education offers student-teaching opportunities through Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana. William Anyan, who is part of the Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research at the University of Ghana, was a Fulbright Fellow at Geneseo in 2019. He and Susan Bandoni Muench, professor of biology, research schistosomiasis, a neglected tropical disease prevalent in Africa and Latin America that is spread by snails through water contact. Bandoni Muench leads a multi-disciplinary, study abroad course for students that focuses on public health. Through visits to communities, hospitals, national parks and other locations, students explore broader issues of public health and how it is affected by the ecological and social environment. Students spend a week with Bandoni Muench and Anyan collecting water samples from Tomefa, a marginalized community on the outskirts of the capital city of Accra. Tomefa lacks sanitation and clean water and has a number of high cases of schistosomiasis, especially among children. Students analyze urine and fecal samples under the supervision of lab technicians, their work contributing to research focusing on infection rates and hybridization between two species of schistosome parasites.
“This is a powerful, authentic research experience,” says Bandoni Muench. “They are checking real samples for infection and exploring how it relates to the broader scope of schistosomiasis.”
Expanding “experiential learning” opportunities that focus on hands-on, research, volunteer and service-learning components is also a growing priority. “Students are increasingly seeking experiences in which they can apply classroom knowledge in real-world scenarios,” says Cardamone.
Adapting in the pandemic
The novel coronavirus has halted travel, but Geneseo is adapting to make meaningful opportunities for students, taking classes or completing internships remotely.
This summer, students can take courses through Webster University Athens in Greece, or put their education to use by addressing real-world problems with community development projects in Ecuador, Morocco, South Africa and Uganda through nonprofit organizations. In each course, says Cardamone, there are opportunities for students meaningfully engage in their host communities.
“The spirit of study abroad is preserved in these programs, because the virtual global education experiences approved to offer students all include an extensive intercultural component,” says Cardamone. “The Study Abroad Office recognizes that nothing will ever replace the experience of traveling to a place, but we want to be sure that the virtual international offerings allow students to meaningfully engage with people of that place.”
International relations major Kera Franceschini ’22 was disappointed she couldn’t go to her two planned programs abroad and was wary that a Zoom-based internship for FSD Uganda could feel immersive. She met with Ugandan youth who do clean-up and hygiene outreach in their community several times per week, and conducted leadership workshops to help them become independent thinking and acting, and confident. It was more rewarding than she imagined.
“It really did provide me with the global experience I was looking for,” says Franceschini. “… If you have the opportunity to to something — especially work with people your own age — in Uganda? That’s awesome!”
Anthropology major Laura Montes ’22 completed the new SUNY COIL Global Commons Program last summer. The SUNY-wide course focused on the U.N. Sustainability Goals. She says her two courses, “Intercultural Storytelling for Global Sustainability” and “International Perspectives on Good Health” prepared her to successfully complete a virtual internship with The Primary Health Care and Health Management Centre (PRIHEMAC) in Nigeria. Montes and her student team created a video that outlines the centre’s mission and goals.
“Our objective was to empower stakeholders and encourage potential donors to join PRIHEMAC by showcasing its impact on the Oyo State community and world,” says Montes. “I had the chance to interact with PRIHEMAC’s leaders, the honorable commissioner of health in Nigeria and community members. My team and I learned so much that we will implement in our future projects.”
(Watch a video about Geneseo’s virtual programs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFylYgq2_9g&feature=emb_logo)
Experiences that Inspire
Those lessons and experiences from courses or volunteering abroad often inspire students in their lifestyle and career as alumni. That is true for ChrisAnne Ross ’17 and Meara Bowe ’15, who studied 7,000 miles apart in extremely different environments, but each found their calling during their journeys.
Bowe took Humanities II in Nicaragua, led by Glenn McClure ’86/M.S.Ed.’11, former adjunct lecturer of English. She and other students discussed classic literature through political, historical and cultural lenses of the country, while touring colonial cities and living with host families in rural El Sauce. She spent time with farmers who raise organic coffee, get around by horseback or foot and host tourists who want to see their way of life.
“I saw a different way of living and the challenges people can have in other countries have, such as transportation and access to resources,” says Bowe. “The people I met were so welcoming. I like to get out of my comfort zones and I loved forming connections and lasting friendships with others, regardless of language and cultural differences. That experience completely changed my career path.”
Bowe, a psychology major and biology minor, moved away from her desire to become a genetic counselor and toward public health. She spent two years in the Peace Corps as a health educator, focused on teens living with HIV in a village in Botswana. Bowe went on to earn a master’s degree in public health and is an epidemiologist and contractor for the Center for Disease Control, managing a treatment program for U.S. residents who have severe cases of malaria. (Read her first-person perspective of Peace Corps service.)
Ross, a geology major, didn’t know much about New Zealand and its active volcanic zones before she spent several weeks there on her junior/senior capstone seminar led by Dori Farthing, associate professor of geology. Her research assignment was to understand the large-scale eruption processes in the Taupo Volcanic Zone.
“I gravitated towards the topic almost immediately,” remembers Ross. Researching samples right at the volcanic sites, she says, she could see the big picture of landscape and history.
“I was able to hold pieces of volcanic deposits in the palm of my hand,” she says, “and understand an incredibly complex and fascinating story of physical volcanic processes and geologic time.”
Ross was so inspired, she returned to New Zealand to earn her master’s degree in earth science and volcanology at the University of Waikato. Her research developed from her Geneseo beginnings: She examined the physical eruption and post-emplacement processes of the Ngaroma eruption within the Taupo Volcanic Zone.
“These ancient eruptions and their processes are preserved within the volcanic deposits we study,” she says. “We can then piece together a story that begins deep within the earth’s surface and continues to the eruption onto the landscape we see.”
Ross says she’s taken all her professional and personal skills, strong work ethic and confidence she gained as a student with her in her career, working as an assistant geologist in the lab and field for Terracon, an environmental and engineering consultant company. Study abroad got her going.
“The opportunity to research in the field in New Zealand and continue at Geneseo,” she says, “allowed me to feel next to limitless.”
International learning is inherently unique because students traveling as scholars and explorers engage with places and communities very differently than if they are tourists, says Wes Kennision ’79, adjunct lecturer in English and faculty fellow in the Office of International Programs.
Kennison tries to create that in-depth experience in each of the dozens of academic and service-learning trips he’s led to Nicaragua, Haiti, Italy and other countries, and the years he led the study abroad office. He knows the value for students — as well as faculty, who share their curiosity and passion. As an undergrad, Kennison studied in England. He also spent a summer in Italy with Cook, researching Dante and the Middle Ages, “driving down every dirt road in Tuscany, finding 12th-century churches, meeting families and stepping over the pigs on the farm to look at a spectacular Romanesque sculpture on a column.”
“The best discoveries are often surprises and never predicted,” he says. “There is joyful self-criticism, fleeing comfort zones as if they are on fire — and transformation.”
Kennison, Cook, Herzman and other professors appreciate being part of the students’ own experiences.
“Leading these trips,” Kennison says, “is a fountain that’s constantly bubbling over. I get to live in the moment of that sense of wonder, excitement and freedom.”
WHAT’S NEW IN GENESEO FACULTY-LED STUDY ABROAD
THE LATEST … Geneseo’s newest foreign study programs completed in the 2019-2020 intersession are:
- Madagascar: History, Environment and Conservation in Madagascar, led by Amanda Lewis-Nang’ea, assistant professor of history in African history.
- Italy: Post Humaniities Plus, led by Wes Kennison ’79, adjunct lecturer in English and faculty fellow in the Office of International Programs.
COMING SOON …Programs expected to launch in the future:
- Australia: Indigenous law and public policy
- Equatorial Guinea: Language field school in Afro-Hispanic Societies
- England: Austen in Bath
- Greece: Music and math in ancient Greece
- Iceland: Exploring early education in Iceland
- Lithuania: The Baltics and Beyond
- United States and Mexico: Anthropology of the U.S.-Mexico border
VIDEO: The value of studying abroad and visit our Study Abroad Playlist to see all related videos.