Dr. R. Given Harper is an Avian Ecologist and teaches Biology at Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington, IL. In Fall 2016, he accompanied a group of IWU students as Faculty Director on an AIFS Customized, Faculty-Led Semester in London, England, teaching a course on Global Climate Change. Participating students also took local courses on Art History, Shakespeare and the History of London.
We took the opportunity to chat with Dr. Harper regarding his experience:
What motivated you to bring students abroad? Have you done this before?
I believe it is absolutely vital for students to experience other cultures. Many people in the U.S. have a strong ethnocentric view of the world, and it is important for students to explore new ideas and see the world from a different cultural perspective. Studying abroad is also a time for students to experience much personal growth, as they gain both knowledge and self-confidence from living in another country.
I have taken students to Costa Rica on 13 short-term courses and to Australia on three short-term courses, but until now I had never spent an entire semester abroad with students.
Our university offers students an opportunity to spend a fall semester in London each year. London is truly a cosmopolitan city and it is also a very convenient gateway to other parts of Europe. It is a melting pot of cultures, and it is essential for students to see that many cultures can live together quite well.
I taught a course on global climate change, and both London and the United Kingdom are ideal settings for this course because the UK is an island nation that is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise due to climate change. There is an incredible diversity of resources in London that I have utilized, including the Thames River Barrier, the Mayesbrook Climate Change Park, green rooves on buildings, and local community groups living in a more sustainable manner. It is one thing to read about such things in texts, but they make lasting impressions when students view them first-hand.
What do you think are the benefits of being able to customize a study abroad program?
Instead of a “canned” program of study, a customized program allows faculty members to apply their area of expertise in designing a unique study abroad program. Students will get opportunities that do not exist in more structured programs, as customized programs allow faculty members to adapt their courses to the possibilities of specific locations.
What is your advice to faculty or schools interested in setting up a customized program?
I strongly encourage faculty members to teach courses different than what they offer at their home campus. Faculty can offer customized programs that take advantage of the vast world class resources that other cities have to offer (e.g., free museums, art galleries, etc.).
I started working on my course about two years in advance of the actual start date of the program. It was important for me to make an actual site visit to London before the program began to make sure that the excursions I had planned were feasible. The staff at AIFS were most helpful in helping me to determine the logistics for my excursions.
What is your advice in general about study abroad?
I tell the students in all of my classes that while they may be able to visit other countries once they graduate from college, the vast majority of them will likely never have the opportunity to truly immerse themselves in another culture for an entire semester. Visiting other countries for short trips provides students with a cursory knowledge of the country, but students can gain a much more detailed knowledge when they experience another culture for an extended period.
Has this experience changed how you will teach back on campus?
This experience in London has allowed me to have first-hand knowledge about some of the measures that London has taken to address climate change, which will enable me to give students back on campus a much more knowledgeable perspective about them. The experiences I had with the students in London were wonderful and I will share my enthusiasm about studying abroad with students on campus.
What has been your favorite part of the experience?
The opportunity to experience the British culture with my students has been my favorite part of living in London. It is so gratifying to watch the expressions of delight from students when they experience something new for the first time, and to read their reflections about their experiences. Our time in London is something that both the students and I will remember for the rest of our lives.
Illinois Wesleyan University send a Faculty Director with a group of students to London each fall semester. We look forward to welcoming them back in 2017!