If the term “excursion” conjures images in your mind of luxury suites and infinity pools, you are not a likely candidate for Central’s Outdoor Pursuits course in Wales or Morocco Exchange in Granada, Spain.
If, however, you seek authentic cultural learning, physical and mental challenges, and the daily potential for life changing experiences, then these Central College program offerings promise to deliver, as they have for more than a decade.
Blaire Modic, director of Central College Abroad since 2013, said excursions offer many advantages to helping students develop confidence and cultural understanding outside the classroom. “Over time, you can accumulate experiences on-site,” Modic said, “but leaving the site gives students the opportunity to reflect on what they are learning and to break away from the routine of daily life.”
According to Modic, excursions as part of study abroad programs are common and expected if a program is to maximize a student’s time abroad. But what sets Central’s programs apart is that 1) Central includes these intra-curricular trips as part of the overall programming price, and 2) excursions are integrated into academic coursework.
“Few other study abroad programs include the price of the excursion in the overall programming price, integrate the excursion into the curriculum and require participation,” Modic says.
Excursions support the goal of experiential learning, which emphasizes direct and active engagement, beginning on campus and continuing as program participants make their way out into the world.
The popularity of Central’s Wales program is on the rise, with record enrollment for 2014. Modic and Wales resident director Tecwyn Vaughan Jones attribute this surge to the Outdoor Pursuits experience in the “hauntingly beautiful” Snowdonia National Park.
According to Jones, the Wales program takes advantage of its location in many ways. “The Outdoor Pursuits class enables students to interact with the environment of what is arguably the most striking and beautiful in the whole of the United Kingdom. Bangor is on the threshold of Snowdonia National Park and the class takes advantage of this location and offers an opportunity for students to acquire practical knowledge of flora, fauna, climate and weather, landscape and settlement patterns, as well as skills which emanate from such an environment,” Jones says.
He also stressed that the program is founded on the belief that learning is an active process, and the best learning occurs as a result of direct and meaningful experience.
In the fall and spring semesters, groups of 10 students are transported once a week from the classroom site at Bangor University to the Outdoor Pursuits Centre on the shores of the Menai Strait in Anglesey, about four miles away. During the summer program, students go to the Centre daily. Once on site, students are provided with equipment and clothing for activities like surfing, gorge scrambling and raft building. The first hour is dedicated to classroom teaching of the skill, site orientation, and health and safety instruction.
Each class includes beginners, as well as those who may have experience in the day’s skill, and is taught by experienced practitioners with broad teaching background. “For the uninitiated, the challenge is to overcome fears of participation, lack of confidence and whether they are able to fit in,” Jones says. “To the lightly more experienced, it is being able to deal with students of lesser skill and help them overcome their fear.”
Throughout the course, Outdoor Pursuits compels students to get out into the world and test new skills. “The challenges in this class cannot be replaced by any reality TV,” Jones said. “Students use terms such as ‘life changing,’ ‘the best thing I have ever done,’ and often say they achieve confidence in this class.” For some students, the class even provides an introduction to a future career.
This was the case for Kris Johnson ’14, a double major in environmental science and sociology. He says, “The greatest benefit and challenge of Outdoor Pursuits was learning how to effectively communicate and work with others. Many of the activities required good communication and teamwork, forcing me to rely on my classmates for my safety and completion of a goal.”
Johnson brought his newfound skills back to the United States and is putting them to work in his career. As assistant farm manager at Red Earth Gardens, an organic farm that is part of the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama, he says he must effectively work with a team of people. “My majors tie together in my passion for sustainable agriculture, which I realized while I was abroad. I was forced out of my comfort zone on several occasions. Outdoor Pursuits gave me the confidence, decision making and teamwork skills that I now use in my everyday life,” he says.
Bryanna Pierce ’15, an athletic training major and psychology minor, had the chance to put her first-aid skills to work during her semester’s excursions. “This class gave me an opportunity to see how I react in different situations and how much I enjoy helping,” she says. “I now know that I have chosen the right career path, and I can’t wait to continue my education through the Central athletic training program.”
Students still spend time in the classroom. Jones teaches a required course module, Introduction to the History and Culture of Wales, to educate students about the country’s archaeology, architecture, tourism, industry and way of life. The course requires students to complete journals and a final essay on “What is Welshness?” Identity is a major theme of the required class, and students cannot talk about identity without first looking at their own.
Overall, Jones says, “The Outdoor Pursuits class provides students with a unique opportunity to engage with the natural environment, while developing leadership skills; challenging students both physically and mentally; teaching them to act responsibly and to care for others; helping the students to be self-sufficient and persevere in the context of personal challenges.”