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Three Months and 8000 Miles from Fall to Summer

June 24, 2014

In fall 2013 the History Department offered our first-ever fall Freshman Seminar Abroad (FSA) with travel in the winter break. I led the Understanding New Zealand: Re-Imagining Kiwi Culture class in 11 weeks of on-campus reading, discussion, and writing followed by a two week trip to New Zealand in early January.

Until now all of the Learning Abroad Center's FSAs had been offered in spring and traveled for a week during spring break, yet the week-long trip was too short for courses that traveled much further afield than western Europe, South America, or Tokyo (a direct flight from Minneapolis), which were compromised by lengthy travel and tired students. As graduates of the History department know, there is much more to the world than those continents! I volunteered to be the first leader of a fall freshman seminar abroad, with a shorter on-campus component and longer travel learning section. With two full weeks abroad, the new format let us travel to New Zealand, gave students greater immersion in the culture of the country they were studying, and allowed more time for reflective learning.

Initially many aspects of the course were similar to other History freshman seminars: students read texts closely, had involved discussions, were introduced to primary historical sources and the thrill of a large academic library system, and worked on different types of college writing. I drew on my ongoing research about the health and mortality of World War I soldiers to introduce students to primary research with New Zealand archival sources, from which they prepared short biographies of selected soldiers. With the centenary of World War I approaching, there are many public history events and exhibits about World War I in New Zealand, some of which the students would see on their trip. As the focus of the course shifted to preparation for learning abroad, students worked in teams to prepare short presentations about the sites and people they were going to meet and took charge of briefing their classmates about our daily activities and connecting the learning abroad to the learning on campus.

When we arrived in New Zealand, the class tried to visit as many historic sites, cities, and museums as possible, making the trip full, even with a longer time away. But not all of the time abroad was faculty led. We started our formal, scheduled activities relatively early in the day, which gave students time to explore on their own in the afternoons. New Zealand was an ideal place for students to find their way in a foreign city, being relatively safe (but do look right, then left!) and speaking mostly the same language. At dinner, drinks, or breakfast we would chat about their discoveries the previous afternoon, which included a good amount of culture shock. One student, Jordan Ecker, was impressed by the level of respect shown to the Maori culture and language in contrast to American attitudes towards Native American heritage, but she was also struck by how little New Zealanders knew about the middle of the U.S., having been exposed to a steady diet of LA- or New York-based American television.

Everyone wanted to maximize their time in the southern summer, and as many classes and discussions as possible were held outside. Although we all got sunburned one sunny day on a volcano early in the trip, the class was a success and the Learning Abroad Center is preparing to offer more fall FSAs in the future. Offering the class in the fall and traveling together in the first break students had from college led to most of the class becoming firm friends, with the class keeping in contact through the spring semester. Nearly all of the students are making plans for their next study abroad experience (Jordan Ecker is even evangelizing as an intern at the Learning Abroad Center!), and several of the students are taking more history courses than they initially planned.

Evan Roberts,
with contributions from Jordan Ecker and Hui-Han Jin