By Andrew Roberts
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Studying abroad at the University of Maryland is life changing. Recently, 24 Maryland students took to the high seas on a magnificent sailing ship traveling to the Caribbean archipelago - a volcanic cluster of islands stretching from the southeast coast of the United States to just off the northern coast of South America.
The Geography of the Southern Caribbean is a two week education abroad program offered during winter term 2013. The course gave these Maryland students - many of whom had never traveled beyond the borders of the United States - a truly unique opportunity to study the physical and cultural geography of the Caribbean, as well as the history that has shaped the region, its landscape and its people.
Led by Joseph Trocino, a lecturer in the Department of Geographical Sciences, the students gained the type of cultural appreciation, universally applicable skills, and international exposure that the University of Maryland prides itself on offering.
A One-Of-Its-Kind Program
The journey took the Maryland students throughout the Leeward Islands, where they learned about the physical and cultural geography of the Caribbean, the complex history of the region, the cultures that define each island, and the economic, political and sustainability issues facing them – individually and collectively. Aboard the Star Clipper, a 360-foot full-rigged clipper ship, the students also learned about life at sea and had the opportunity to learn hands-on about the operation of a complex sailing vessel. The combination of these focuses during a short-term education abroad program makes this class the only program of its kind in the United States.
"It was priceless," says Dan Zawacki, an English and secondary education major and a senior at Maryland. "One of my biggest weaknesses as an educator, about to enter the workforce, is having limited experience with different cultures, languages, nations and socioeconomic conditions. I think having gotten this exposure on the trip is extremely valuable for someone in education. It prepares you for appropriately addressing the students you will go on to work with."
Coursework Done Ahead of Time
The students have to complete their coursework before they depart. That includes the reading of two books and 12 custom-tailored online documents. They also have to complete a written essay. The students took it upon themselves to read, write and complete their assignments during the Fall 2012 semester, in addition to their existing workload.
"When the students began their study abroad program in early January, they already had a well-rounded concept of the region and knowledge of geography fundamentals to help put their experiences in context," says Trocino.
During the program, the students kept a daily journal to track their activities, lessons and excursions. At the end of the program the students turned in their journals to Trocino, who reviewed them along with the other coursework.
This approach not only ensures that students in the program are able to appreciate the range of diverse cultural, political and geographical environments they are immersed in, but it also empowers students to experience, interpret and learn about the region in an educated and unique way.
Over their two week program, the Maryland students visited eight island nations – all of which have distinctly unique cultures, history, geography and challenges. Interacting with locals, exploring the natural landscape and learning from the island natives enabled the students to gain a new appreciation for the world around them – beyond the universally applicable geography knowledge and skills they acquired.
The benefits, as Trocino has learned over the years, extend far beyond graduation. "I get emails, regularly, from students about their return trips to the region…some for business, others with their families, friends or significant others…sharing things they have learned and asking questions about what they have seen," Trocino explained. "They write to boast about how much they learned, and still remembered. Some impressed friends with their knowledge of maritime navigation or geographical history…others were just proud to intimately know an island that most had never heard of."
View the full photo gallery from the students' adventures or get a taste with this slideshow: