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College’s first self-run study-abroad experience was a success

Barry McNamara

MONMOUTH, Ill. – For a group of Monmouth College students, the spring semester was an opportunity to become immersed in another culture.

The five students were part of the College’s inaugural semester in Mérida, Mexico.

Led by biology professor James Godde, the students did home stays with Mexican families, and most of their classes were taught by professors in a building in the northern part of Mérida occupied by the College.

“The students were in an immersive environment,” said Godde. “They had home stays where the families spoke Spanish to them. They took all their classes, except for mine, in Spanish – including acting, anthropology and Spanish language courses, so I think it was a really good experience for them. They came back speaking Spanish much better and understanding it much better.”

Godde used a series of field trips to teach his class.

“I decided to try a new approach to learning with my Reflections class, ‘Sacred Places,’” said Godde. “I decided that every class period would be held in a different sacred place, whether that be a church, the ruins of a Mayan temple or a cenote – one of the water-filled sinkholes that the ancient Mayans believed represented direct connections to the underworld. And so we traveled all around for every one of the 14 weeks of my class and actually visited the spots and talked about them there instead of sitting in a classroom.”

Each of Godde’s field trips was held on a Saturday, the day following the students’ internship sessions. Their other classes were held Mondays through Thursdays. Students said that getting out of the classroom and exploring the region made the class all the more educational.

“The Uxmal archaeological site (an ancient Maya city) really stood out to me,” said Cynthia Kamurigi ’18 of South Africa. “It just felt very majestic and grand. I also liked that it was not as crowded with tourists.”

Kamurigi said her conversational Spanish skills benefited greatly from the semester in Mérida.

“My Spanish has tremendously improved,” she said. “I was nervous because I had only taken one Spanish class before going on the trip, but now I am much more confident. Being in Mérida and constantly being exposed to Spanish every day has absolutely convinced me that the only way to truly learn a language is to be completely immersed in it by studying abroad.”

A good deal of that immersion came with Kamurigi’s “caring and supportive” host family.

“I felt like part of my host family from day one,” she said. “They taught me so many things. I miss them very much and I am planning to go back and visit them.”

“One of my favorite memories was going to Cuba for our spring break trip,” said Haley Osborn ’18 of Monmouth. “Being abroad gave me experiences I never would have gotten otherwise. It challenged me, both academically and personally. By the end, I was much more comfortable and confident using my Spanish, and I loved getting to go to the actual sacred sites and explore them in person.”

As the state and regional capital of almost 1 million people, Mérida is a cultural center with multiple museums, art galleries, restaurants, movie theatres and shops.

Godde said Mérida was a “logical place” for Monmouth to have an off-campus location because “we have a language requirement, and 80 percent of the students take Spanish to fulfill it.”

“We wanted it to be in a safe area, and somewhere that was also affordable,” he said. “So we crunched all the numbers, and we said, ‘We should have it in the Yucatán, in Mérida.’”

Now that the College’s first self-run study-abroad semester is in the books, Godde forecasts growth.

“We started out a little small, just to see how it would go, and I think it went well,” he said. “Next year, we’re going to send 12, and we’ll probably have around that go on a continual basis.”