Professor César Beltrán, former U.S. diplomat and professor of communication at Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU), speaks many languages. Some he picked up on his own, while others were part of his diplomatic training. “The State Department sent me to diplomatic school for Polish, Russian, and Hungarian,” explains Beltrán. “I already had French, German, Spanish, and English to varying degrees of proficiency.”
Although retired from the Senior Foreign Service, Professor Beltrán still finds plenty of occasions to deploy his multilingual skills. This summer, Beltrán will lead his fourth study-abroad trip to Central Europe, traveling with students to Poland, Hungary, and Austria in a Global Field Course called “Nazi Aftermath in Central Europe: History, the Media, and the Holocaust,” studying the lasting effects of World War II and the Holocaust. Previous excursions have included stops at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, the Imperial Ring in Vienna, and Krakow’s Jagiellonian University.
Professor Beltrán believes it is vital for students studying abroad to seek an authentic local experience and less of a tourist’s perspective. Therefore, Beltrán and his students “travel like locals, going on the trams, the subways, and the busses. We have light suitcases so that we can walk the streets if we have to. I want them to experience these places as the locals experience them. I take them to my favorite local dives and coffee shops, and they get to meet the local people as much as possible.”
Professor Beltrán (left) with his class at the U.S. Embassy Budapest briefing with Public Affairs Counselor Eric Watnik (second from right).
This first-hand, street-level knowledge complements Professor Beltrán’s extensive professional experience as a diplomat, as well as the contacts and relationships he fostered while working in embassies abroad. “Because of my connections working in the embassies both in Budapest and Warsaw,” he says, “I’ve been able to get students in to talk with the ambassadors, the public affairs counselor, and the press attachés, which would be difficult or impossible otherwise.”
As a result, students hear directly from those with significant political and cultural experience in the region, granting them access to contemporary perspectives on the role of the press and the media throughout Central Europe. “For us, it’s like going to a laboratory,” says Beltrán, “but it also helps to show them that we don’t necessarily have all the answers here in the U.S.”
Professor Beltrán routinely sees students establish lasting personal connections as a result of these journeys, as exposure to the language and culture affects their lives at home. “Traveling always broadens you,” says Beltrán, “but some students who have been on my trips have Central European backgrounds, and they’re blown away by how deep the culture is in these countries. Some students tell me that they’ve learned phrases that allow them simply to communicate with their grandparents and to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ or ‘I love you,’ and that’s incredibly impactful.”
Professor Beltrán (left) with his class outside Warsaw University.
In addition to culture and language exposure, Professor Beltrán believes that travel provides students with a host of other life lessons about the nature of connection and the importance of relating to people from different backgrounds. “They learn that they have to network, to present themselves, and that face-to-face communication is more important than texting or emailing,” says Beltrán. “They learn public relation skills and communication skills as well, which are hugely important in their careers.”
Professor Beltrán hopes these experiences abroad will serve as an introduction, fashioning students into global citizens with a broad knowledge of international issues. “It’s really about opening their eyes to the world,” he says, “showing them that there’s more than what we see here in Connecticut.”