BY MARY BURGER – STAFF WRITER
During a recent CentreTerm trip to London students saw German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron walk through the British Museum. Singers performed in La Sagrada Família, the basilica in Barcelona. Students had an up close and personal experience with a charging elephant at Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda. Every abroad trip is marked with its own unique, and sometimes unexpected, experiences.
Assistant Professor of Chinese and Chair of the Asian Studies Program Dr. Kyle Anderson and Assistant Professor of Politics and International Studies and Chair of the European Studies Program Dr. Chris Paskewich led a trip to Thailand and China in 2014. The plans for the trip changed midway through the trip, though, to compensate for political revolts in the capital city of Bangkok.
Dr. Anderson and Dr. Paskewich extended short day trips outside of the city to avoid some of the escalation within Bangkok. While this complicated some of the travel plans, the revolt-turned-military-coup led to some interesting insight on the class in general. The course, “Buddha in the Big City,” sought to look at the role of local monks, lay people, and tourists on the established city centers and urban areas. As both China and Thailand utilize traditional Buddhist sociopolitical structures, the class explored how these influence shape cultural and economic trends.
“The protests added another important dimension to our comparative studies of Shanghai and Bangkok. Students saw first-hand the role of religion in the political process, as Thai monks became involved in the revolt,” Dr. Anderson said.
The protests arose when the Democratic Party of Thailand, tired of losing elections, took to the streets to air their grievances. They asked the sitting government to leave office, which naturally Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra refused.
“The protests continued with the occasional violent outbreak, largely contained to specific areas around monuments and government buildings that were easily avoided,” Dr. Anderson said.
Concerns about Thailand first appeared in December of 2013, the month before the trip. The professors, administrators, and parents kept an eye on the news and announcements from both the State Department and the US Embassy in Bangkok. The group stayed in a famous tourist area near the main temples that were protected from the protest areas. Through this experience, students saw how their course translated into real life.
Typically, abroad experiences tend to dwell more on close involvement with the culture as opposed to encounters with military coups. These experiences allow for a different unexpected last memory.
Another such example was a trip led by Assistant Professor of History Dr. Jonathon Earle to Uganda and Rwanda, also in CentreTerm of 2014. Within twenty-four hours of the group’s arrival on the African continent, students participated in a community ritual.
The shrine visited was a traditional spirit shrine of one of the principle clans of the Buganda kingdom, which community members continue to use as a site of public healing. “I wanted to begin thinking how politics tied to acts of healing in precolonial Buganda. Powerful political activities [were] tied to the ability to perform acts of healing,” Assistant Professor of History Dr. Jonathon Earle said.
However, the trip originally was just supposed to include a viewing of the shrine. Unexpectedly, community members showed up to the shrine to perform a sacrifice. “Students knew that it was a living shrine, but you never know when people will bring goats,” Dr. Earle said.
“Not only was there more song and dance, there were also long prayers, during which we were instructed to kneel on the ground, and everyone was given a little bit of incense to burn,” senior Leslie Hamilton said. “After about two hours, the worship leader slit the goat’s throat, and threw it into the fire along with the incense, and we all began to walk around the fire. The whole experience felt surreal, especially with the smoke going everywhere, and considering how dazed I was from the jet lag. There was definitely an element of culture shock with this experience, but looking back on it, I’m glad that we dove straight into cultural immersion.”
It is this chance to experience new surroundings that encourages so many students to go abroad. In CentreTerm of 2015, Assistant Professor of Religion Dr. Lee Jefferson and Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy Dr. David Hall co-led a trip to hike the Camino de Santiago.
Their course, “The Art of Pilgrimage,” followed a route in Northern Spain established in the ninth century. Students stopped along the way to look at art and architecture. While this was his third time hiking the Camino, Dr. Hall still experienced a new pilgrimage experience.
“Every group has a different collective personality, which makes every trip a different experience,” Dr. Hall said. “This group was particularly adventurous in exploring the culture of the places. They wanted to talk to people, try new foods, see thing they hadn’t before. I was very proud of them on this score.”
Wherever students travel, they are bound to run into life changing experiences. The ability to explore, firsthand, the different cultures that make up the globe is one way in which Centre’s study abroad program claims its success.