Many students associate Winter Study at the College with snow, an excess of free time and the occasional weeknight party. Some, however, venture off-campus for the month of January in search of experiences that simply cannot be found within the confines of Williamstown, Mass.
Ashley Villarreal ’20 is one such student. Instead of staying on campus, she opted to spend Winter Study in France, taking Paris Noir: Performances in the City of Light. This course, listed under Africana Studies, focused on African diasporic culture’s influence on Paris.
“I decided to do this Winter Study because I was tired of going to French class and learning about the same old rich white men who painted and wrote about old rich white women,” Villarreal said. “I knew that there were deep-seeded and often ignored issues of race and Islamophobia within France, and I was extremely interested in learning more about these issues.”
This course was an opportunity for students to immerse themselves in French culture, visiting jazz clubs, touring museums and meeting prominent artists.
“We went to a really famous burlesque show, which was unreal, and also met some incredible people who have seen a lot of success in the music industry and have worked with some really amazing artists, such as the late James Baldwin,” Villarreal said.
Another travel course took students even further. Keileh Atulomah ’20 participated in Exploring Hong Kong: Past and Present. This course is taught by faculty from both the College and Lingnan University, a liberal arts college in Hong Kong, and explores the history, politics, economy and culture of the city.
The course involved class discussions and group trips, as well as time for the students to go off and explore on their own, as Atulomah described in her journal from the trip. “Some of us decided we had enough time to make the trek to Lantau Island, so we hopped on the [metro] around 2 p.m. At Tung Chung, we traded the subway for a cable car with breathtaking views of the water and surrounding islands,” she wrote. “We strolled past souvenir shops, Subway, stray dogs and a few cows to climb up the steps to Tian Tan Buddha. I loved how the fog fell on the water in the distance so only the tips of islands would peek out; up there, it felt so peaceful.”
Other travel courses incorporated volunteer work into the curriculum. Professor of Psychology Laura Smalarz taught Eye Care and Culture in Nicaragua, a course which trained students to conduct eye examinations in Spanish and prescribe the correct lenses to patients. Students spent 10 days in Nicaragua putting these teachings to the test by working with local patients.
Once there, the trip was fast-paced; students, faculty and volunteers held clinics in five communities, serving over 4200 patients and distributing over 7200 pairs of glasses. Smalarz described this year’s course, which has been offered for 16 years, as particularly busy.
“The work flow was pretty much nonstop. As soon as one patient stood up from an eye exam chair, another was there ready to sit down,” Smalarz said.
She described the overall experience as “grounding, humbling and emotionally rewarding.”
“The main thing I want students to take away from this trip is the experience of stepping outside of one’s comfort zone to do meaningful work that impacts people’s lives,” Smalarz said. “The feeling of leaving behind our fast-paced, hyper-connected and, in many ways, indulgent culture to spend time in a place where things move more slowly and people live with far less is one that I think stays with the students.”