Arts and Culture

Fostering a liberal arts education abroad

by Sam Roth

Scottish building

SUMMARY: Semester in Scotland, a summer General Education program for sophomores, allows students to complete 13 credit hours in JMU's core academic program, while exploring the country rich in history, literature and physical beauty.

From Winter 2017 Madison magazine

A world of new perspectives opens for JMU sophomores during the General Education Semester in Scotland Program, providing first-hand experiences into the rich culture of another country.

The program takes JMU students on an experiential learning trip through two of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the United Kingdom—Edinburgh and St. Andrews, Scotland. The Semester in Scotland began with the first cohort in Summer 2013. Approximately two dozen rising sophomores attend the semester program every summer, giving many students an upfront and personal experience into another culture abroad.

During the summer program, students complete 13 credit hours toward their General Education requirements, the core academic program at JMU in which they come to understand how distinct disciplines look at the world from different vantage points. They study in the areas of arts and humanities, the natural world, social and cultural processes, and individuals in the human community, while being exposed to the culture of Scotland outside of the classroom over an eight-week period.

Three individuals studying a map with Scottish castle in background

“The central idea of General Education is to teach all of our students how different disciplines look at the world around us from different perspectives and use different measurements in their respective analyses,” says political science professor Bernd Kaussler, director of the Semester in Scotland. “Students are being equipped with an academic toolbox from which they can assess the realities of today’s world.”

The Semester in Scotland allows students whose major programs may not give them the option to study abroad an opportunity to do so, while also completing a large sum of their GenEd requirements. “The Semester in Scotland takes [students] on a journey of how best to reconcile their own ideas and practices with the cultural, political, legal, economic and geostrategic realities of today’s world,” says Kaussler.

At the University of Edinburgh, students complete a Scottish literature course and microsociology course over a period of four weeks. Students are given the opportunity to explore the locations in Scotland where the literature they are reading took place or was written. “We were able to take field trips to visit the Scottish Writers’ Museum and take tours of the Royal Mile in order to see what these writers were actually seeing and talking about in their stories,” says Kristina Overholt, an athletic training major who attended the Summer 2016 program. “Without the chance to study abroad, I would have missed out on these wonderful cultural aspects woven deep into these novels.”

Students wearing hardhats examine a Scottish shoreline during a field experience

For the second half of the summer semester, students attend the University of St. Andrews, where they complete a global politics course and gain field experience through a geology class. Will McCarthy, director of the field academy at St. Andrews, joined the JMU program in 2015. “The module and philosophy at St. Andrews is based around critical thinking skills,” he says. “We want students to come into the classroom and challenge their lecturer and ask questions.”

Making the transition to learning from another country’s academic model can be a culture shock for some students. “The module we offer is challenging for students who arrive,” says McCarthy. “But my experience over the past two years is that Madison students adapt to our style of teaching very quickly and do very well.”

Universities in the U.K. do not have a liberal arts or General Education program. Students who attend Edinburgh or St. Andrews are taught only in their chosen discipline. The Semester in Scotland is helping to enhance and support a liberal arts education abroad, where professors are teaching JMU students from all different majors and backgrounds.

“This is an opportunity for our lecturers to interact with the next generation who are not going to be going into science. They have chosen a career path in the arts, for example, and want an insight into how science works,” says McCarthy. “It’s exciting to deal with students from other departments. Fresh eyes, fresh set of mind is beneficial for us as much as them.”

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Published: Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Last Updated: Friday, May 18, 2018

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