By Gabby Vanacore | Editor-in-Chief

Students during the 2018 South Africa trip on a safari. (Courtesy of Allison Soto)

Whether you had the chance to cradle koalas in the land Down Under or spent time trekking through the Amazon rainforest in Peru, traveling during January Term at Saint Mary’s is never the typical study abroad experience. Jan Term, where students can take one class either on or off campus, is the time when many choose to venture outside their major and take a class of real interest to them. For many students who choose a travel course, it is a time of real growth—a time of true transformation for both students and professors.

From my brief encounter with a thick-tailed, poisonous scorpion to the many nights I was able to watch the pink, African sunset in the savanna, my recent Jan Term, “Wildlife Ecology and Conservation of South Africa,” is one I am sure I will never forget.

I chose South Africa because I wanted to challenge myself. As an English major, taking a science course on ecology and conservation was completely out of my element. From these four weeks in South Africa, it’s safe to say I learned more about the world than I ever could have from books.

This year, the 2018 travel Jan Term classes were full of diverse opportunities for students to experience. The list of destinations students traveled to this January included: Ecuador and the Galapagos, Greece, Ireland, Italy, France, Australia, Mexico, India, and Hawaii.

With Jan Term, there is always a lot to see and experience, so there are always challenges. Senior Sarah Wong, who traveled to Peru in 2017 and Italy this last January, speaks about how homesickness was her biggest challenge: “Traveling through Jan term really pushed me out of my comfort zone. As soon as I started meeting new people and learning about the culture of the countries I was in, I started to have fun.” Wong doesn’t get as homesick as she used to, and now makes it her goal to travel as much as she can.

Senior Sabrina Galindo faced a different kind of challenge while taking the course “Wildlife Conservation: Australia” this past January. “[Australia] was so much fun and so worth the experience, but it definitely went by faster than I expected it to, and before I knew it I was on a plane back home,” says Galindo. She advises future Jan Term travelers to not take a single moment for granted by always taking pictures and keeping a journal.

Through whatever challenges you have while traveling, there comes learning and appreciation as a result. As someone who loves living in the Bay Area, Wong admits it was important for her to travel beyond California. “The world is so much bigger than I realized,” says Wong. “Through the courses, I was able to immerse myself into those cultures and learn new ways to live a daily life.”

“Be open to new experiences,” advises Senior Cierra Garcia, who also traveled to Australia this last Jan term. “You will make friendships that will last beyond the class and memories to last a lifetime.”

For students who travel during Jan Term, it affects their lives beyond Saint Mary’s. Alumni Melissa Hines, who started her college career at Cal Poly, transferred to Saint Mary’s specifically for travel Jan Term. As a student and then as an alumni, Hines traveled to New Zealand, Peru, South Africa, Belize, Guatemala, and Costa Rica for Jan Term. “Traveling has this truly amazing way of making you find yourself and trust the universe more,” says Hines. “We all have doubts and fears of the unknown, but I say go sign-up for that class, conquer the world and never, ever stop exploring.”

Alumni Alison van der Heide, who traveled to New Zealand, Peru, and South Africa, had never had the opportunity to travel outside the United States before Jan Term. “Going to Peru and experiencing a third world country and the plight people go through helps to put things in perspective. It makes you want to do more to help those in need when you get back,” says van der Heide. From her traveling experiences at Saint Mary’s, van der Heide’s passion for travel still exists. She admits, “The travel bug never goes away.”

While travel during Jan Term is life changing for the students, the experience is also transformative for professors—just in different ways. Professor Tom Poundstone and Dr. Margaret Field, both travel Jan Term experts, explain that Jan Term is a time where they become connected to their students outside of the classroom.

Professor Poundstone, a Theology and Religious Studies department professor, taught his 21st Jan Term course, “Engaging Christian Art: Italy and France,” this past January and loves being able to share his passions with students on a month-long trip. “At the very heart of January Term is the challenge for students and faculty alike to pursue subjects that capture their imagination regardless of majors, minors, and career goals,” says Poundstone. “It is great when students are there because they find the subject intriguing, not because they are fulfilling any other aspect of the core curriculum.”

Dr. Field, who has taught a travel Jan Term course every year since 2000 but one, says, “[Jan Term] transformed me in my teaching in that I get to know my students in a very different way in January. I’m with them all the time—night and day. I get to know them, and I don’t see them as students—I see them as people.” Dr. Field now travels with many of her students who are now alumni and whom she now considers close friends.

Newly retired from teaching Biology at Saint Mary’s, Dr. Field just completed her last Jan Term to South Africa. She explains that teaching travel Jan Term has helped her travel more academically, even when she is on vacation with family. “I do my homework before I travel because I’m always thinking about teaching,” says Dr. Field. She explains how she now understands how important both experimental and cooperative learning are: “You are learning things in a different way when you are actually seeing them, and I think that gives the ability to have a more seminar-like discussion that we don’t get to do in science.”

The biggest transformation Dr. Field has seen from her students during Jan term is the way they truly become travelers. “[The students] stop thinking of travel as a vacation and start thinking about travel as a learning experience. It makes them travelers and makes them unafraid to be travelers,” she says.

For me, after an entire month traveling across the beautiful country of South Africa, it is safe to say I am not an afraid traveler anymore. Conquering that fear has been my greatest transformation. I will never forget the adrenaline rush when a male lion was almost within arms reach as I sat above in an open safari truck. Nor will I forget the sound of a hyenas laughing in the distance and hippos roaring at night.

After being 10 yards away from a fifty-year-old male elephant bathing himself in a watering hole, the several bus breakdowns and delayed flights will soon be long forgotten. While you can always see these animals in any zoo across America, or encounter these exotic Jan term destinations in books or witness them on TV, nothing can compare to being there yourself.

This article has 1 comment

  1. Margaret F Field

    Well done, Gabby!

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