Saint Mary’s College: Jan Term’s worldwide study experience
By Lou Fancher
Mind expansion is second nature during Jan Term at Saint Mary’s College.
“I visited 22 countries while I was doing a summer internship in Ireland and a fall semester in 2016 in London. The farthest east I got was Hungary. Farthest south was Italy,” says Dean Boerner.
“Why wouldn’t I choose a course in South Africa — apart from the historic, ecological and wildlife aspects, post-apartheid and how young a democracy they are is interesting. We have parallels in the U.S.”
The 22-year-old native of Pacific Grove will graduate in 2018 with a double major in finance and economics. “Besides, it’s unlike anything I study at Saint Mary’s,” he adds.
Jan Term is an intense, four-week semester that offers classroom and travel courses meant to challenge students and faculty to step outside their usual realms of study. Courses are engineered to achieve the college’s Lasallian ethics centered on “social justice, civic responsibility, and personal transformation,” according to the SMC website.
In 2018, classroom examples range from study of ugly fad diets to fencing and swords in history to “Star Wars” and theology to courses in alternative energy, nuclear war, musicianship, literature, philosophy and more. Travel classes often combine community service with cultural exploration and immersive living experiences.
Tradition and Modernity in Mexico, taught by 23-year World Languages and Cultures professor Álvaro Ramírez reaches beyond the folkloric aspects of Mexico. A participant since Jan Term’s inception in 1995, Ramirez says the benefit of travel — to base-city Cuernavaca, colonial cities Puebla and Taxco, contemporary Mexico City, archeological sites — are the multiple perspectives students gain.
“I was born in Mexico and spend about five months there every year. I see progress, globalization, but also tradition that doesn’t go away,” he said. The dance between indigenous and contemporary cultures Ramirez says is profoundly beautiful, complex.
By living with middle-class families during their stay, students see people who aspire to lives similar to their own. “We don’t want them to see Mexico from a hotel. We want them to see people living real lives. Students see these people are the same as they are: hardworking, same problems, families.”
Students whose parents come from families that live in the countryside learn about urban Mexicans. “They see difference,” says Ramirez. “Families in Mexico are not one and the same. They appreciate the contrasts and similarities.”
An extensive reading list, including an anthropological book about indigenous people, is part of course curriculum and educates students in advance about Mexico’s rich history.
While in Mexico, students volunteer at a small school in Cuernavaca’s most impoverished community. “It’s a cultural encounter. I want my students to see some of the poorest people in the hidden part of Cuernavaca. Tourists don’t see these barrios, these pockets for the very, very poor,” says Ramirez.
Similarly, professor Raina J. León shares large-view perspectives and personal experience in San Francisco sister city Cork, Ireland, with students enrolled in “Rebel Artists in the Rebel City: A Sister City Exchange Between Cork and Bay Area Artists.”
After selecting a discipline of choice — writing, dance, music or art — immersion in the city’s vibrant art scene will result in final projects Léon plans to showcase in early February at Saint Mary’s and a venue in Oakland. Presentations the students create and perform in Cork will be available on YouTube.
“The huge benefits of Jan Term are intercultural exchange, sustained relationships, inspiration for conversations across borders and bodies of water,” she says.
Cork’s longstanding competition with Dublin to be considered the seat of power adds a texture she says stimulates creativity and bold expression.
“For students, as they think about themselves as artists, who they are within global, socio-political issues — engaging beyond their own circle is important.”
Boerner has purchased malaria and typhoid pills for the first time in his life and discovered South Africans speak 11 national languages. He’s learned that in response to human rights abuses the country is in the process of “creating one of the most human rights-oriented constitutions in the world.”
His most anticipated meeting? South African penguins.
“In terms of wildlife, I knew there were unique animals,” Boerner says, “but I didn’t know they had penguins. We might even get to swim with them. I’ve absolutely never done that before.”