Students flee Williams campus for exotic locales

During Winter Study 1998, more travel courses than ever before fanned out across the globe. The eight courses, three more than in 1997, attracted 110 Williams students, more than twice as many as in previous years.

Travel courses headed abroad for destinations in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, where they studied topics ranging from India’s modernist architecture to coral reef geology in the Virgin Islands.

Virgin Islands

Assistant Professor of Geology Ronadh Cox, and Mark Branders led the nine participants in “Geology in the Virgin Islands,” a trip made possible by the Sperry Family Fund. The original plan called for the class to use mapping techniques taught in Geosciences 251T, “The Carbonate Factory,” a prerequisite for the travel course. But Cox soon learned that the map she had intended to work from was out of date because most of the reef had died in the last three decades. “It went differently than planned, but all the better,” Cox said. The class worked to assemble an updated map of the reef in terms of depth, sediment type, and ecological zones.

Sam Teplitzky ’98 thought the field experience made the semester class much more meaningful. “It was really excellent because when you take a class here, you don’t really see the applications,” she said. Based on the class’s exciting findings, Cox decided not to culminate the class with the usual 10 page paper/project.

“When we got back [to Williams],” Cox said, “I said there was something too big for this sort of effort.” So Cox, Branders, and their nine students co-authored an article they hope to have published in The Journal of Coral Reefs. Members of the class spent their free time snorkeling and kayaking. “Not only was it a great Winter Study and everyone came back with a tan,” said Cox, “but we have a nice paper for publication.”

Jordan and Syria

Professor of Religion and Chair of Middle Eastern Studies William Darrow led “From the Classical World to the Islamic World in Jordan and Syria.” The course took its students to important archaeological sites, including Jordan’s Petra, the magnificent cliff city of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade fame. In addition to exploring the Levant’s rich history, Darrow also hoped to introduce his students to middle eastern culture and society. “I’m primarily interested in making what I teach lively — reminding students that these are real people that we’re talking about,” he said.

Unfortunately, the trip coincided with Ramadan, a month-long Muslim holiday, which made homestays impossible. Despite the class’s limited contact with Arabs, Lesley Blum ’98 was still amazed by their hospitality, especially considering the anti-American climate the media had led her to expect. “The first thing most people will say to you is ’welcome,’” Blum said.

The class also met with prestigious members of the foreign communities in Jordan and Syria. With this trip Darrow hoped to revive the Williams tradition of sending a travel course to the Middle East every year. “I think [a travel course] is one of the best things you can do with a couple of Winter Studies,” he said.

South Africa

“South Africa’s Transition: The Challenge of Redistribution and Growth” spent 22 days exploring the economic conditions that have arisen from the death of apartheid and the birth of democracy. Assistant Professor of Economics Michael Samson headed the group, which met with numerous members of the national government and provincial governments, including the national cabinet’s Minister of Justice, Dullah Omar, who presides over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The class also met extensively with non-governmental contacts, ranging from labor leaders to teachers to public health workers to business people to community activists.

Sfiso Buthelezi, a graduate of Williams’s Center for Development Economics and a former political prisoner in South Africa, led the class on a tour of Robben Island, the apartheid-era prison that held Nelson Mandela. “The most memorable thing that I came away with were the people I met there,” Danny Puskin ’00 said. “The things they’ve withstood — I’ve never met such remarkable people.” “I was very impressed with the commitment the country has shown to transformation,” Samson said. Thanks to the experience of the trip, one student plans to write a thesis on South Africa and another plans to do a summer internship there. In some of the time not allotted to meetings, the class enjoyed two game drives through Kruger National Park, a wildlife preserve the size of Massachusetts, which brought the class face to face with elephants, giraffes, and baboons.


“Poly-Japan: Cultural Diversity in Contemporary Japan,” visited Tokyo, the Kansai region, and Okinawa. These three regions, distinct in their geography and culture, allowed the class to explore the heterogeneity of modern Japan and issues of cultural exchange between East and West. Fabio Rambelli, Assistant Professor of Religion, led the group and served as its interpreter. “The language barrier is a big thing. Very few Japanese can speak good English,” he said.

Mike Hacker ’00 acknowledged the problems presented by the language barrier and the short duration of Winter Study. “I don’t think I really got to know the people of Japan, but I got a small glimpse of what their life is like,” he said

The trip also ran into unseasonably cold weather. “In Tokyo it was the worst snow in maybe 10 years,” Rambelli reported. Extensive free time allowed students to explore those aspects of the culture they found most interesting. Ultimately, Rambelli hoped the experience would get the trip’s participants “thinking back on the way we think about the other.”


Two travel courses very different in subject matter visited India. Participants in Assistant Professor of Philosophy Samuel Fleischacker’s “Modernist Architecture in India” delivered presentations about the modernist buildings the class toured and met with prominent architects.

Unfortunately, “The architect we most planned to see just blew us off or couldn’t make it,” said Fleischacker. “The combination of the class, which was quite serious, plus the cultural experience, was very rewarding,” Fleischacker said. He also noted, “It was very rewarding to see people open up to the country.”

“I learned more from the experience of going to India than I did from the class materials,” John Magary ’00 said, “Very, very little personal space. I had to learn to deal with that, and it wasn’t easy.”

According the Fleischacker, as many as five of the class’s participants are considering further study in India. “The fact that we got through pretty much unscathed is a good thing,” said Fleischacker. One long bus trip took the class through bandit country on a bus ventilated by bullet holes from a recent ambush.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Rachana Kamtekar led “Women’s Issues in Contemporary India.” Like Fleischacker, Kamtekar commented, “It went about a million times better than I expected.”

“We didn’t just go to India to see how badly women are treated,” Paola Gentry ’98 said, “We went to see how women are responding to it. India has a really vibrant women’s movement.” A weekend in Banda, a city in the Eastern U.P. province marked the highlight of the trip for many.

In one of India’s five most developmentally backward districts, the class met with an innovative, active women’s organization that offered women literacy training as well as training in repairing the unreliable hand-pumps upon which most villages depend.

In the course of the trip, students had to adjust to India’s climate, social norms and food. Gentry said, “I think what made the trip so rewarding was that it was
n’t an easy experience.” Although the travel course required more preparation than any semester course she has taught, Kamtekar hopes to lead other such travel courses. “[The trip] kind of transformed my sense of the possibilities of teaching,” she said.

France and Germany

As with Winter Studies in previous years, both the French division of the Romance Language Department and the German Department placed interested students in overseas language programs. Nine students lived with host families in villages on the coast of Brittany in northern France. “My family spoke minimal English,” Nikki Lopez ’00 said, “I had one French brother, three French sisters, a French dog, and two French cats.” In the Ecole Internationale de Francais immersion program the students attended language classes on weekdays and took field trips to destinations such as Mont Ste. Michel on weekends. When they signed up for the class, the students received “e-pals,” French peers with whom they corresponded via email and who helped show the students around. “I’m definitely going to Paris for next spring semester,” Lopez said.

Students of German studied at one of the Goethe Institute’s three locations: Berlin, Munich or Prien. Chris Cuneo ’00 studied in Prien, a typical small German town southeast of Munich. His class met five days a week for a total of 18 hours and taught general grammar and speech, as well as special subjects such as filling out job applications. “It wasn’t so much that I learned a lot of German, but I practiced a lot,” Cuneo said, “You’re totally immersed in the language.”

Students and adults from around the world attend the Institute. Cuneo’s class included individuals from Japan, Norway, and Kazakhastan. “[Prien] kind of reminded me of Williamstown,” Cuneo said, “but it had a train,” which made all the difference. Cuneo took weekend trips to Vienna, Venice, and Geneva.

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