Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Professor and Students Reflect on Panama Trip

Today’s commonly marketed second language text books so overflow with glossy color photos of peoples and places, and are so saturated with cultural information related to those peoples and places, that the understanding is not lost on anyone: learning language is learning culture.

Anyone who has studied another language acknowledges that the single most significant component to language/culture learning is immersion. What one cannot learn “here” about peoples and places that are “not here” is immeasurable.

Below, several students who traveled to Panamá over Spring Break share an example of what they leaned from their immersion experience. You won’t read about the long, overnight bus rides, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, and aimless wandering through hot, humid, big-city neighborhoods. But these were precisely the things that reminded me that, try as they may, the glossy photos and long selections of cultural information found in our students’ expensive text books only begin to scratch the surface.

Chris Donahue
Languages and Cultures


"I went on the Panama trip not because I was a Spanish major, but because I was interested in getting out and seeing the world beyond a textbook. This was my first trip out of the U.S. so I was preparing for a culture shock, and while I didn't get shocked, I learned quite a bit. Here in the U.S. we take so much for granted: homes with a roof and four walls, hot water, shoes and clothes, just to name a few things. And here in the U.S. we are busy running from one thing to another not truly taking time to notice the little things and the people around us. In Panama, people take care of each other. They may not all have hot water or even homes with four walls. There may be children walking around with one flip flop and clothes that are too small. But the one thing I really took notice of was how happy these people were. They took what they had and made a life for themselves and their family. They smiled and laughed and had a good time. People in the U.S. could learn a thing or two from them. Going on this trip has made me appreciate how much I have. I think anyone who has the opportunity to go on this trip should, it makes you see life in a new perspective.”

Kim Johnson


Katie Pyle and her home stay family
“There are many things you can read in a textbook or learn in a classroom and think you understand it, until you find out you really don’t until you experience it. That was the case for me numerous times. I had learned that Hispanic culture was laid-back when it came to time; they aren’t strict like Americans when it comes to the clock. They are very relaxed about it as I found out as I impatiently waited for things like boat rides and breakfast. When I see a sign stating that breakfast will be served at 7:30 a.m., I am up and ready by 7:15 (breakfast just happens to be my favorite meal.) To my dismay, breakfast was never served until 8:15. I was too busy grumbling along with my stomach to realize that I was indeed in another culture and had to remind myself that I was. I know it sounds trite, but even this little snippet of experience opens your eyes to others’ way of life.

Having to speak Spanish constantly especially with our host family was challenging but ended up building my speaking confidence. You really cannot experience another culture without immersing yourself in one.”

Katie Pyle


“Traveling to Panamá was an experience that I would never find in the classroom here, simply because I was completely immersed in the culture. Everything around me reflected the culture of the people there and I had to switch from English to Spanish for 10 days. While there, we lived with homestays in which the families spoke Spanish and had very little, if any, knowledge of English. I was forced to speak Spanish in the homestay in order to function. This is something that I would never experience in the classroom. In the classroom, we know we can always revert back to English, or as soon as we leave we can speak in English. In Panamá this was not the case and it resulted in a greater confidence in speaking Spanish.

It was interesting returning to the States trying to switch back to English. I remember saying, the day after we returned, to one of my co-workers, “I feel like I can’t function, everything is in English!” The motivation that I have gained from going abroad for a little over a week inspires me to go to another Spanish speaking country to study. It is an experience that will rock your world like no other, and I highly recommend it.”

Kaitlin Heimback


“The single greatest thing that I came back with from Panamá was a sense of preparedness. It was certainly a life-changing experience that I simply can't imagine receiving in any other context. I've been studying Spanish for roughly six years now, I took classes for four years throughout high school and have another two under my belt here at Bloomsburg University, and although I've studied hard and learned an incredible amount from all of my professors and classes throughout the years I still lacked the confidence that I could actually make it a part of my life; I never felt like I could "get there" with the language but rather I would always be stumbling through the conjugations and grammatical differences that we all strive to grasp.

The example I like to use to explain my transition to people after coming home is my experience with our guide in Panama City, Monolo. The first night he took us to a cafe where I struggled through ordering myself a plate of food in Spanish. I had never needed to do this before in my life so what is to be expected? Over the course of just a few days, however,  my Spanish was coming out of me more readily, more confidently and more correctly, and the thought of that first night crossed my mind many times. I wanted to see Monolo again, I wanted to show him my progress, I felt that I was better than what he saw and it just bothered me.

Well the opportunity arose on the last day of our journey, as he drove us from our hostel to the airport in Panama City. On the way we discussed some of what we saw in the city. The previous day my classmates and I had walked around Panama City, accompanied by a guide so we could make the most of our time. We saw a part of the city called Casco Antiguo. It was almost like being in Spain; all the buildings were hundreds of years old and beautifully crafted, yet in desperate need of repair. Our guide showed us some of the progress being made and explained to us that businesses are purchasing the old buildings and having them restored and repurposed. In fact, we had stopped for ice cream in a restored building without even knowing it. In nearly fluent (I think) Spanish I asked Monolo what was happening to the people living in those buildings. They were in disrepair but still housing families and it seemed like they wouldn't have much of a chance to stay in their homes if the property was being bought up by investors.

What Manolo explained to us was very impressive. The residents in those buildings were actually squatters. They didn't pay for their residencies or anything of the sort; they were just living there for lack of a roof to sleep under. But instead of simply throwing them out onto the street as the area underwent renovation, the president of Panama initiated a plan to construct low income housing projects for all of the displaced people in another part of the city. That was a very satisfying end to our trip. Discussing important things that were happening in the lives of the people there in their language with no barriers of communication felt like a huge accomplishment for me. The trip as a whole allowed me to grow as a person and as a student of this language and culture that I've grown to love. There's no substitute for this kind of cultural immersion. Whether you're a student or just curious about the world, it is an experience that I believe everyone should make an honest attempt to have.”

Josh Powell

Monday, May 6, 2013

History Students Shine

On April 13, BU hosted the annual Pennsylvania East Regional conference of the History Honors Society Phi Phi Alpha Theta.   The students in BU’s History Club and its Phi Alpha Theta chapter helped faculty member Dr. Jennifer Oast to organize the conference, which featured seventy-nine presentations by students from colleges and universities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.   Four BU History students presented their history research papers:  Alison Huber, Michael Mock, Gary Stover, and Stephen Swicklik II.   A committee made up of faculty from several universities awarded an “outstanding paper” prize to Michael Mock for his research paper, “American Humanitarian Intervention in Turkey from 1914-1919.”  Congratulations to Michael and to all of the BU History students who presented papers and helped to organize this conference.

Kudos as well to Olga Bertelsen, one of the BU History Department’s many excellent alumni, who in April was awarded a post-doctoral fellowship from the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies at Columbia University.  Bertelsen, who completed her BA in History at BU in 2008, recently defended her dissertation at Nottingham University in the UK.  She joins a long list of BU History alumni who have gone on to complete PhDs, author important research studies, and win prestigious post-doctoral grants.