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May 29, 2008

Intergenerational study-abroad trip looks at Ireland's 'Troubles'

Study-abroad opportunities increasingly are touted as an important addition to higher education, enriching students’ cross-cultural awareness and preparing them with first-hand experience that will serve them in an increasingly global environment regardless of their field of study.

Although it is among the Pitt Study Abroad Office’s goals to integrate study abroad as a component across the undergraduate curriculum and to make opportunities available to all students, College of General Studies students historically have been underrepresented.

Nontraditional students often have work or family obligations that keep them from being able to take advantage of study abroad, said Jessica Bauer, director of CGS’s PittOnline program. She noted that either the length or expense of study-abroad opportunities keep most nontraditional students at home, unable to be abroad for a month or an entire semester.

Bauer, who studied abroad for a year in England as an undergraduate, recognized the importance of the opportunity.

She determined there was an interest in study abroad among CGS students and last year set about designing an opportunity with nontraditional students in mind.

Never mind that Bauer had not designed a study-abroad trip. She approached history professor Tony Novosel with a plan to develop an intensive two-week integrated field trip abroad (IFTA) as a sequel to Novosel’s PittOnline Irish history course that focuses on “The Troubles” in the time period 1969-1994. The course was a prerequisite for the three-credit IFTA.

Costs were kept at a minimum, Bauer said, noting that the least expensive study-abroad opportunities often cost more than $2,000. The IFTA to Ireland cost about $1,850.

Bauer has seen the plan come to fruition. She, Novosel and 10 students ranging in age from their teens to mid-50s returned last week from their intergenerational study-abroad trip to Belfast and Derry, where they had the opportunity to meet with former combatants and former prisoners from both sides of the conflicts in Northern Ireland.

Along with six Arts and Sciences undergraduates from Pitt’s Honors College, four CGS students — all Pitt staffers — were part of the study group. They took vacation time and paid for their trip through a combination of Pitt tuition benefits and CGS scholarships.

Information science major Ric Fera, an information technology coordinator in the School of Nursing, recalls attending a CGS study-abroad presentation and wishing he could participate. He recalls thinking he’d never be able to do such a thing — it would be too expensive and too time-consuming; he couldn’t afford to take unpaid time off to go away on a long study tour. When the IFTA opportunity came along, he had to use all his vacation time — “It was worth it,” he said — but he was able to go.

Between scholarship dollars and tuition benefits, his out-of-pocket costs were about $1,000, he estimated, adding that the trip would have been even less expensive had it not been for the weak dollar.

He returned having decided, partly because of the tour, to minor in history.

“Nobody in this group will ever have a more intense learning experience, mentally, emotionally and physically,” Fera said, recounting the powerful experience of being escorted in Derry by a former IRA member who described the events of “Bloody Sunday,” the winter day in 1972 when British soldiers opened fire during a civil rights march in Derry. Their guide showed the group a photo taken of himself that day between two buddies, one already dead, the other dying.

Fera, 29, commended CGS for understanding that international experiences aren’t valuable only for traditional students. Even though the IFTA was geared toward the needs of nontraditional students, he noted that the University still would be able to capture only a certain segment of that population.

Bridget Ridge, a budget administrator at the University Center for International Studies, agreed, noting that some students who have young children still might not be able to be away for two weeks.

The mother of 17- and 21-year-old sons, she was fortunate that was not an issue for her. “My biggest hurdle was making sure my 17-year-old got up for school,” she said.

At UCIS, she said, “I see tons of people go abroad. It was nice for me to do it too.” In addition to the Irish history, she gained a better understanding of how study-abroad programs work and the complex logistics involved. “Now I know why it’s so expensive,” she said.

Ridge, 41, who is majoring in public service in the nonprofit management track, said she used the opportunity to fulfill a foreign culture requirement. She returned with a broader focus, she said, now viewing her field of study with a more international perspective.

She said the trip also gave her the chance to focus on a single goal for two solid weeks — a rare opportunity for nontraditional students who often have more outside responsibilities competing with their schooling. “It was almost like a retreat,” she said.

Student Erin Hinson, a history of art and architecture major who will graduate in August, said the IFTA format isn’t just a benefit for nontraditional students. Like them, she thought she’d never have a study-abroad experience. The 24-year-old said she shared some of the nontraditional students’ concerns — she works and can’t spend an extended time away; likewise, finances were a consideration.

Lisa Monahan, a junior majoring in history and civil engineering with a physics minor, said she found an advantage to having the nontraditional students along: “It helped avoid the drama issues you might have with 10 people who are 20.” She also felt that the nontraditional students brought different mindsets and points of view, adding to the depth and breadth of the conversations and questions throughout the trip.

Novosel said the intergenerational composition of the group posed no problems. “Everyone hung out together, ate together … there was no chance to get divided,” given the schedule jammed with tours, meetings and discussions.

Hinson said that when the students split up during their free time, the groups were based more on common interests than age.

Ridge teased that she decided the older group was more fun. “We’re out having fun and they’re going to bed,” she recalled.

Hinson disputed that contention. “Sometimes when they went out on their own, that’s when fun things happened,” she teased.

On a more serious note, Hinson said, “We got on really well. It was a great mix.”

Bauer agreed that students of all ages mingled and forged friendships all around. “It was fantastic to watch the bonding that happened and how they learned from each other,” she said.

Novosel said he detected no real difference in attitude or approaches in his students — all were prepared with the same class material from the prerequisite honors course and even though the traditional students weren’t born yet when The Troubles occurred, the older generation had no overt advantage, given the students’ good grounding in the subject matter.

Fera said he felt the nontraditional students might have felt more pressure to make the most of every minute on the trip, knowing that they were returning home to full-time work and school while many of the traditional students were looking forward to a summer break.

Ridge said she also detected an unspoken attitude among the younger students — some of whom already were veterans of international travel — that they would have other opportunities to study abroad again. For them, “It was not as much of a once-in-a-lifetime chance” as she, who had waited half a lifetime to travel abroad, found it.

Bauer said investigation into additional CGS-friendly study-abroad opportunities is underway. Possibilities for future IFTAs, all of which will take place just after the spring term ends, include study in India, Amsterdam, London, Israel, Turkey and Eastern Europe in conjunction with courses on subjects ranging from media criticism to the Bible as literature.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

The Pitt group’s itinerary and links to a trip blog and photos are online at

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