Full Immersion: Travel Complements CSU Coursework

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Before arriving at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) 17 years ago, Professor Paloma Lapuerta earned a PhD in Spanish Literature at the University of Geneva and taught in American programs based in Madrid and South Africa. This globe-trotting background, along with three decades of teaching experience, makes Dr. Lapuerta a natural fit to lead CCSU students traveling internationally. “I’ve organized several courses abroad,” says Lapuerta. “I’ve taken students to Spain mostly, but also to Chile, Argentina, Japan—I’ve also taken the University singers to Spain and organized a tour for them there.”

One of Dr. Lapuerta’s initiatives through the Department of Modern Languages, “Spanish on the Move,” is an annual full-immersion program that brings students to Spain and Latin America. Participants stay with host families, take courses at local universities, and spend weekends on cultural outings. As a requirement of the trip, students pledge to only speak Spanish while abroad, and according to Lapuerta, “Frankly, they go up a level and really improve their Spanish skills while they’re away. I think some of them learn more in that period than they would in a semester at home.”

For a more compressed experience, Dr. Lapuerta also offers a course with a Spring Break international travel component. This past semester, her students prepared for a trip to Barcelona and Valencia with classwork focused on Spanish culture, art, and architecture. “During one week,” says Lapuerta, “they’re exposed to all of the things they’ve researched and that we’ve discussed in class.”

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Students eating paella in Valencia

It is obvious to Dr. Lapuerta that travel provides her students with distinct advantages and growth opportunities, both academically and personally. “In their reports, they tell me not only how much they’ve benefitted from a language point of view, but also that they’ve learned more about who they are by traveling and having to be in a place so different,” she says. “It’s amazing how much they mature in just a one-week period.”

A particularly memorable recent trip was an excursion to Morocco that examined the relationship between that country and Spain. As usual, students first faced a rigorous research requirement. “It’s very hands-on once we’re in the country,” says Dr. Lapuerta, “but the preparation ahead of time is essential for them to know what they’re seeing and how to talk about these things. For example, the issue of the independence of Catalonia was a very important issue, and while we were there, they were able to discuss it with a variety of people.”

The difference in terms of impact and engagement between classroom lectures and travel is striking to both Dr. Lapuerta and her students. “It’s amazing how many students told me that even if we had discussed these things before, there’s nothing like being there and experiencing it. I think the two things supplement each other very well—the preparation is important and is what sets it apart from a tourist trip.”

After each journey abroad, students undergo a thorough debriefing process, which Dr. Lapuerta feels is just as crucial as the pre-travel research and preparation, providing students an opportunity to articulate and share their experience. “The impact of being there, even for one week, is tremendous, especially for students who have never traveled before.”

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Students cooking Spanish Food in Barcelona

Dr. Lapuerta has seen many of her students transformed by their experiences abroad. “Eventually, they come back with that background and are more mature. Very often they become addicted to traveling, which expands their own education. Having traveled and being able to speak other languages will help to place them better in the job market. Even in accessing graduate programs, having that experience is very beneficial.”

Indeed, the International Education Committee at CCSU compiled a document detailing how study abroad programs lead to improved post-college placement, while countless testimonials, thesis presentations, and other student-produced content suggest this programming also has a substantial lifelong impact.

To that end, professors across the four regional Connecticut State University campuses are building professional networks with international research stations, universities, and embassies to develop a diverse range of study abroad programs. While some take the form of a research trip over spring break, others as summer excursions, and still more as full semester-long courses, all travel components have immediate benefits, including course credits, research experience, and language exposure.

The rising availability and affordability of international travel, coupled with the invaluable long-term benefits for students, makes studying abroad an essential résumé item for graduates entering an increasingly competitive and global workforce. As Dr. Lapuerta says, “It really opens their minds to so many things.”

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