JMU Honors seminar abroad provides a challenging, yet rewarding, academic experience
By James Hong ('14)
The workload is immense but the payoff is great. That is the message faculty members teaching the James Madison University Honors Program seminar abroad want their students to know. To prepare for the summer honors seminar abroad the participating students were assigned research and readings, attended lectures and films and met throughout the spring semester to prepare for the trip.
Junior media arts and design major Sean Byrne said the seminar abroad is a great way to fulfill the honors seminar requirement while experiencing something totally new. “It takes you out of the classroom, out of the textbooks and brings you right to the front door of the stuff you’ve only ‘learned’ about,” he said. “Rarely do you get the chance to fulfill a class requirement while going on field trips, eating delicious food and living in a foreign country.”
The Honors Program at JMU strives for its students to cultivate and develop skills through challenging, yet rewarding, academic experiences—the honors seminar abroad program is no exception.
As part of the Honors Program’s requirements students must complete six credit hours of honors seminars – courses that explore contemporary issues in society, multicultural and comparative studies, advanced applications in business, and the natural and social sciences. Students in the Honors Program have a choice of completing honors seminars as classes on campus or while studying abroad.
This past summer, two programs were offered to honors students in order to fulfill the honors seminar abroad option: Modern Barcelona and Art, Culture and Politics in Medici Florence. Both programs integrated a classroom component with excursions to museums, monuments and other local hotspots.
“The course is very interdisciplinary,” said Dr. Linda Cabe Halpern, vice provost for University Programs, about the Medici Florence program. “It aims to illuminate the lives and values of another time and place. We hope students’ understanding is rich and deep because of their immersion in the class.”
Students participating in an honors seminar abroad met regularly throughout the spring semester in order to get better acquainted with each other and the instructors, while also preparing for the adventures of the upcoming summer through various readings, films and lectures.
“At first I was a little overwhelmed with all the readings and countless topics we were covering,” junior musical theater major Courtney Jamison said. “It all didn’t really seem to come together until we were finally up on our feet exploring the various churches and museums.”
For the faculty members, preparing for the program involved a different kind of research.
“I’ve traveled to Barcelona a dozen times – even lived there for a few months at a time,” said Jessica Davidson, associate professor of history. “But to prepare for a JMU study abroad course, I scouted hotels in a safe and central neighborhood and made lots of contacts with museums and scholars in the area.”
Faculty believe the study abroad experience provides students with a new, globally minded perspective of the world, as well as building their independence and confidence.
“[Students] believe they are more prepared to handle all sorts of things because of the experience,” said Halpern about how students benefit from their time in Florence. “In an increasingly global society, the lessons of differences in cultural attitudes and behaviors are also very important.”
The students agree, citing the cultural immersion as one of the most important aspects of the trip.
“Overall, the cultural immersion is so important. We were really living in Florence for three weeks, we weren’t staying in hotels in the tourist area,” Jamison said. "We were getting to create and experience with the Florentines. That was really special."
Not only does the program enlighten students on the global community that they are all a part of, but it is also a means of bringing individuals from various backgrounds together to form another type of community. Halpern noted “studying abroad together, with representation from lots of different majors and all of [the students] working hard to keep up with the class material and understand the class content, is an amazing learning environment.”
Although they prepared for the program all semester and were in-country three weeks, the adventures of studying abroad did not end when the students returned stateside.
“We have seen real growth and maturity, even over three weeks, as students learn that they are competent to manage in a different culture and situations that are not familiar to them,” said Halpern. “They believe they are more prepared to handle all sorts of things because of this experience.”
Honors Program Director Dr. Barry Falk said plans are in place for summer 2014. JMU will offer three honors seminar abroad programs: London: Art and Economics in the Bloomsbury Group; Barcelona: 20th-Century Barcelona; and for the first time South Africa: Separateness in a Connected World: A Glimpse Into Post-Apartheid South Africa.
To learn more about the Honors Program: http://www.jmu.edu/honorsprog/
To learn more about the Honors Seminar Abroad: http://www.jmu.edu/honorsprog/current-students/study-abroad.shtml