What happens in Greece does not stay in Greece
Adrienne Dooley NU’12 and Jim Stellar
Adrienne and I met when she was a high school student applying to Northeastern University and I was the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She wrote one of the first blog posts with me in February 2009 on her experience in a service-learning “summer camp” at Northeastern the first few days before the start of the fall term of her freshman year. We have worked together since on various projects around experiential education. Then, last fall, she had a remarkable experience being a student leader in an unusual program where a group of first term freshman go abroad (in this case to Greece) to start their college education. That experience, the bonding and reflection that occurred there, is what we want to explore in this blog posts. So, to get us started, Adrienne, how about you tell us what was this first-term freshman abroad experience?
At the beginning of my fourth year as a Northeastern Undergrad student I traveled to Thessaloniki, Greece as an International Student Advisor. My job was to supervise and assist 150 first semester Northeastern freshmen as they adapted to living in a foreign country and simultaneously embarking on their first college experience. Throughout the semester I acted as a teacher’s assistant, a resident’s assistant, activities planner and less formerly mentor, therapist, tour guide and friend.
That is very cool. Now tell us about the bonding and what impact you saw it had on the students there and back on campus for the next semester.
As one might expect the student group became fast friends. The change in lifestyle an abroad experience joined everyone together through feelings of mutual excitement and anxiety. Such an extreme change in lifestyle the abroad experience presented many challenges but I was impressed to see how everyone, all 150 students, supporting one another without hesitation. It was interesting to me that not one student was excluded. Masses of our students were taking over the city because everyone wanted to explore with everyone else. If a small group wanted to go out to dinner, everyone was invited, often taking over entire restaurants. These same groups of students stuck together when they got back to Northeastern. Walking through campus I could easily pick them out in the quad, in the library and particularly in the dining hall. The students still organize meals together and swarm the dining hall chattering about what they miss about Greece and what they wish they could have brought over from Europe and back to Boston. I know for a fact the students still watch out for one another while exploring Boston. They take day trips together, go to museums and visit one another over school breaks. Many of them still talk about returning to Thessaloniki one day in the future.
There is no better way to engage students then to have them bond. Can you now talk about what reflection activities happened naturally in Greece when these “bonded” students were together?
Every week the students were required to write reflective blog entries online. The staff would take a certain number of them, read them and give individualized feedback. I have to admit at first the blog entries were hard to read because they were not very interesting. All of a sudden, a few weeks in, the staff noticed a definite change. The entries were becoming longer, heartfelt and very interesting. Students wrote about meeting the Greek people and what this taught them about culture, government and local traditions. Critical thinking had skyrocketed. Eventually, we met in small discussion groups students came forward and expressed how they had made more valuable friends in Greece than they had throughout their entire high school experience. I felt as though we were finally accomplishing goals that were specific to abroad experiences.
Great. Did you notice students talking in small groups about what they had experienced when they returned. I am thinking the format of the trip may have provided powerful informal reflective opportunities.
Since the students formed such bonds many of the conversations back in Boston started with the phrase, “Remember when…”. But just as frequently we would be discussing the freshmen student’s second major adjustment to the Boston campus and the conversation frequently returned to “ I am struggling with becoming accustomed to this in Boston because I am so used to this happening in Greece“. I think the overall experience gave the students perspective and strength so that they could consciously acknowledge what they had learned through reflection and as a result how they could use this new information in the future.
Adrienne’s experience on watching the bonding happen in Greece and then carry over back on campus is an observation we had repeatedly when I was in the Dean’s Office. It occurred with virtually all of the faculty-led trips and virtually none of the classic study abroad experiences, which nevertheless also did have a powerful effect on students. I found it interesting that only the people who knew about the trip and knew the group, like Adrienne with her former students, could see the impact on their lives on campus. An unanswered question that would make a good research project is whether or not students who went on such faculty led abroad trips had a higher graduation rate than those who did classical study abroad.
AD and JS talk all the time about the power of experiential education to change student’s lives. Frankly, it changed both of theirs in terms of planned and actual career paths. But what about bonding is relevant to this power of experiential education? The answer is in the reflection, what we consider to be the “secret sauce” to a successful and transformative experience of any type. Reflection certainly can be done individually and there is an important component of that in any reflective process. But we think it is most powerfully done in groups of peers where the rich non-verbal communication of value and the power of the community can be invoked along with the rapid exchange of intellectual ideas. But before this can happen, there has to be a level of trust and that happened between the students in Greece. Through the bonding, they came to like, trust, know each other. They established a community of practice. They used the other lobe of the brain (as we would say in this blog) to compliment the intellectual and conscious processing of facts and theories whether in country or at the home college. The resulting pervasive reflection that erupted naturally from the circumstances in country and continued at home gives these students an incredible peer-based opportunity to enhance their college education and at no extra tuition cost. All of us who plan programs need to learn from this observation.