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Students visited Europe, Southern U.S. during Spring Break

Barry McNamara
Monmouth College student Corbin Beastrom looks through the border wall between Mexico and the United States; faculty members Tom Sienkewicz, Kristian Lorenzo and Christine Myers pose with students at the Campidoglio in Rome.
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Since Monmouth College’s founding in 1853, there has perhaps never been a better year to get away from an Illinois winter for Spring Break, and nearly 150 students did just that as part of official college trips.
Among the destinations were Moldova and Italy, as well as Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trips to Arizona and Alabama. The Chorale, as well as four Fighting Scots athletic teams, headed southeast, playing or performing from the Carolinas to Florida.
One of the trips to Europe was led by classics professor Tom Sienkewicz, who knows a little about international travel. 
“A student asked me the other day how many times I had been to Rome,” he said. “I realized that I couldn’t answer that question. I have been there so many times, usually with students, that I can no longer count. Rome is always full of surprises. On this trip I was able to see several things I had never seen before, including recently-opened excavations of an ancient Roman cemetery at the Vatican, the remains of the Stadium of Domitian and the tomb of the Scipios. But the highlight of any student trip to Rome is seeing them appreciate all the wonders of the ancient city. Their enthusiasm makes it all worthwhile.”
One such enthusiastic student was Emily Holt, a junior from Moline.
“Besides the general sites that you see when you go to Rome, my favorite parts of the trip were the mausoleums that we went into underneath St. Peter’s Basilica and another underneath a parking lot in Vatican City,” she said. “After taking Professor (Kristian) Lorenzo’s ‘Archaeology of Ancient Rome’ class last semester, it was an amazing opportunity to be able to see all of the places and monuments that we studied in class. I can’t wait to go back there someday.”
When dreaming of going to Europe, Rome is at the top of most travelers’ lists. Near the bottom – in part because it has been called the most “unhappy” country in the world – is Moldova. However, that didn’t stop nine Monmouth students, led by psychology professor Kristin Larson, from having a memorable, life-changing experience.
The Monmouth group visited three Moldovan orphanages, including Stella’s House, which is run by a faith-based organization.
“We went to help them, but I feel like the boys and girls of Moldova taught me more than I brought them,” said senior Ryan Kerr of Warsaw. “I really feel like I learned so much during this Spring Break and could not have spent it better doing anything else.”
Larson said she was proud of the way the Monmouth students jumped right in and “connected immediately,” making fast friends with the children as they played games and learned more about each other.
“There were lots of hugs, lots of laughter,” she said. “It made the issues of human trafficking very real to our students, because now it’s affecting these new friends.”
Larson has helped increase awareness of the plight of orphans in Moldova and, in response, students organized a Stella’s Voice chapter on campus last fall.
“I planned this trip because the students asked to go,” she said.
“The girls at Stella’s House have been through conflicts in their lives and are still some of the happiest people I know,” said senior McCahl Murray of Byron, who called the trip the most eye-opening experience of my life.”
Murray added, “They have inspired me to be more grateful, forgiving and to do well for others. The stories I heard of their upbringing were heartbreaking and made me wonder why they were so happy. The answer was simple: they have given their lives to God and are thankful for everything He has done and for the place they are today. There is not an hour that passes which I don’t think about the girls in Moldova and a day doesn’t go by that I don’t talk to one of them.”
“Several of the students came away saying, ‘Working with kids like this is exactly what I want to do with my life,” reported Larson.
One other Monmouth trip left the country, as three professors – Tim Gaster, Carina Olaru and Dan Ott – led six students to the Mexican border so they could learn more about immigration issues. Although it fell under the college’s long-established ASB program, the trip through the educational organization BorderLinks was a first-time experience for MC students.
The group visited with community aid and advocacy groups, local artists, historians, law enforcement officials and seasoned activists. They even witnessed a deportation hearing in which approximately 70 migrants were sentenced to federal prison and subsequent deportation.
“It was heartbreaking to watch the Streamline trials,” said Stevie Croisant, a senior from Hennepin. “There wasn’t any hope in that room.”
Another memorable part of the trip was crossing over the border into Nogales, Mexico, and hearing firsthand from migrants and local families who work with migrants.
“They told heart-wrenching stories about how economic factors in Mexico were driving people out of villages and off of farms toward and across the U.S. border,” said Ott. “Often these migrants attempt to cross the border in the Sonora desert, and hundreds die there each year.”
“Issues surrounding immigration policy are certainly complex, and we have only begun our learning process in this area, but we came away with a picture of the ways in which human lives are being affected by current economic, legal and political structures,” added Ott.
“I learned about life in the borderlands, the ramifications of skewed economic models and the consequences – good and bad – of various U.S. policies,” said senior Corbin Beastrom of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “I am confident that I will be able to utilize these insights in future academic and vocational pursuits.”
The “regular” ASB trip headed to Huntsville, Ala., where 11 students and Billy Bernard, MC’s assistant director of Greek life, leadership and involvement, worked with Habitat for Humanity, helping with a tornado-damaged home and also working in the Habitat warehouse.
“The hard labor that we all did brought out a lot of character and the strength of muscles we never knew we had,” said Karolina Korzec, a senior from Algonquin. “I would have never interacted with some of the students on campus that I spent the last week with. I have made memories and friendships that I’ll cherish for a long time after graduation.”
Although hard work was the norm, Korzec fondly recalled a glow-in-the-dark dodgeball tournament at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and cosmic bowling. The group also explored Nashville, Tenn., for a day on their way back to Monmouth.
Bernard praised the “Southern hospitality” the group received, and senior Shannon Sullivan of Bartlett agreed.
“Working with Habitat was such a refreshing experience. The people we worked with were so passionate about their jobs, that their caring hearts were definitely contagious. I feel that there is a lot to be learned in participating in an ASB trip. You learn to work as a team, you learn about yourself, and you get to see how even small acts of kindness can make a big difference. It truly is a one of a kind experience that students must try themselves in order to fully understand its impact.”
Relationships were also part of the Chorale’s spring tour, which included performance dates in Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.
“All the students had a wonderful time, growing together musically, seeing interesting new places and meeting friendly people,” said assistant professor of music Tim Pahel, who led the 40-singer contingent. “It was really great to connect with the alumni we met, and for the students to stay with host families, who were incredibly welcoming.”
“We spent Spring Break singing beautiful music beautifully,” summarized freshman Katie Yelm of Laura. “We were lucky enough to sing in wonderful venues. This trip was great for not only perfecting our performance, but also for bonding with our choir mates.”
At one point, the Chorale and one of Monmouth’s athletic teams, the men’s golfers, were not far apart, as the Fighting Scots competed at an event in Myrtle Beach, S.C. In addition to finally getting outside to play, the golfers received an unexpected highlight when 1970 Masters champion Billy Casper talked to the team during their flight.
“He came right up an introduced himself,” said coach Dave Ragone. “He gave the guys two valuable pieces of advice: No. 1, the decisions you make now – good or bad – will affect your future. And No. 2, always think positive. That was definitely the highlight of the trip.”
Meanwhile, Monmouth’s softball, baseball and men’s tennis teams competed in Florida.
New friendships, new insights and even possible vocations – just some of the things that Monmouth College students discovered on their Spring Break trips.