Elmhurst College: January Term: A World of Experiences

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January Term: A World of Experiences

During the College’s annual January Term, students can choose from a diverse menu of travel courses and service trips with destinations as varied as the cultural capitals of Europe, the ancient cities of Israel, and the bustling urban plazas of Central America. 

“Going someplace new and immersing yourself in the culture is always a growing experience,” said Laura Wilmarth Tyna, director of leadership, service and engagement, who led a group of 12 students to El Salvador as part of a Habitat for Humanity building project in January. The group spent several days exploring the country’s vibrant capital, San Salvador, before moving on to the market center of Usulutan, where they helped a local family build a house with support from Habitat for Humanity. Wilmarth Tyna said that working alongside the family gave the Elmhurst students insights into everyday life in El Salvador that no ordinary tourist could hope to find. “We connected with these people and came to a deeper understanding of life in that country,” she said.

A more profound insight into other cultures is a goal of all the travel experiences the College offers its students. For example, a group of students  traveled with Professor of Religious Studies Paul Parker in January to Israel and Palestine, where they visited sacred sites associated with Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and saw firsthand the challenges of everyday life in the impoverished villages of Palestine. 

Music professor Judy Grimes led students on an annual two-week trip to Jamaica to work in the financially challenged schools around Montego Bay. Grimes’ students taught music to Jamaican children and donated music supplies to launch and sustain band programs there. They collaborated with Jamaican teachers and learned, as Grimes says, “that music really is an international language.” 

The Center for Professional Excellence’s Mary Kay Mulvaney, a professor of English, led a City-as-Text class that traveled to Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and Prague in January. City-as-Text, a method of learning based on the ideas of anthropologist Clifford Geertz and learning theorist David Kolb, emphasizes concrete experiences, observation and reflection to form a new understanding of places, people and issues. 

Wilmarth Tyna said that travel experiences introduce students to cultures that are too often neglected in American primary and secondary school education. She and the students learned firsthand how the long-running civil war of the 1980s devastated El Salvador. A mason working alongside the students at the building site told them of being conscripted by the government’s army to fight in the war. 

“It was eye-opening to hear his stories,” Wilmarth Tyna said. “We challenged students to learn about the complexity of this history.” 

One student was able to return to the site of an El Salvador Habitat for Humanity project he worked on in 2013 and visit with the family he came to know there. Wilmarth Tyna said she is looking forward to doing the same thing next year. 

“You think you are going there to build a house,” she said. “But really you are building relationships. You come to feel invested in this place and these people. I can’t wait to go back next year.”

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