It’s another hot, humid day in the convent. A refreshing breeze whips its way into the convent, disappearing almost as rapidly as it had appeared. The day is young as I sit in the hallway near an outlet tapping away this story for you, dear readers. The students are busy preparing their final presentations and I am mentally preparing to wrap up the 2017 Mummy Studies Field School (MSFS), here on the island of Sicily. It’s been another exciting and inspiring year as an instructor for the MSFS. We had a great group of students again this year with a diversity of backgrounds. Their insights have made for fun and interesting class discussions on topics related to the intricacies of mummy studies. These student talked about science, religion, societies, architecture, language, art, and history, all while learning about this interdisciplinary field and having the unique cultural experience of living and working and learning alongside mummies, the physical remains of stories untold about the lives of people who once lived in this region of Italy.
My hope is that today’s student presentations and reflections will be filled not only with good observations and a synthesis of their learning this summer, but also with some of their new stories that they will be taking with them back to the U.S. Those stories will be what they tell to their parents and grandparents when they get home. If I’ve done my job right, maybe some of those stories will carry on and be passed down to their own children someday. Maybe they will inspire yet another generation of curious minds to go on an adventure and to study something abroad. Or maybe I’m just getting a little carried away…I do that from time to time. Either way, the memories made and lessons learned this summer will not be soon forgotten by any of us hopping on flights back to the states over the next few days.
There’s nothing quite like your first time studying abroad and the same is true for teaching. I had a few opportunities to travel while I was still a student…to Panama for a class….to Brazil for research…to Mexico for my honeymoon…and each of those opportunities was unique and transformative both professionally and personally. I find myself sometimes falling back into my own stories from those experiences when I’m here watching students overcome language barriers and become fascinated by things that are mundane to the locals. The experience of being abroad as a student was overwhelming and exhilarating all at once. For me, it ignited a desire to learn more, to do more, to see more. The wanderlust die had been cast and it would stay with me as I moved through my education and on into life as a faculty member. That feeling of perpetual wonder made it sometimes hard to sleep while I was studying abroad. Staying up late and waking up early became the routine out of excitement and curiosity. I was more willing to try new and different foods than back at home and every moment came with an eagerness to see what else was waiting just around the bend to be discovered.
I find that teaching abroad is a little bit different. There’s certainly much more to worry about when you are responsible for more than just yourself and your experiences as an individual, but there is also an odd flavor of satisfaction that is hard to describe unless you yourself are a teacher. In any traditional classroom teachers can and often do find a sense of pride in their students when they are able to answer questions, contribute to group discussions in meaningful ways, and otherwise demonstrate competencies in the subject we are attempting to teach them. Study abroad trips and other non-traditional venues are particularly gratifying because you naturally become even more invested in the success of your students. You eat meals with them, endure travel woes with them, and to some degree you live with them throughout these often brief but intense short courses. You really get a chance to get to know your students…their strengths and weaknesses, their career aspirations and life goals…things that may take you years to learn about students in more typical settings. You also get to see their day-by-day progress and how they handle changes to the schedule, which gives you an indication of their resiliency and adaptability. Knowing these things provides you with all of the data that you need to be able to write recommendations for these same students later on. You are able to have these amazing interactions with students that allow you to make a real difference in their professional lives.
I have been fortunate to spend the last two years here in Sicily getting to be an integral part of teaching students about the mummies here in Santa Lucia as well in the nearby communities of Piraino, Savoca, and Palermo. It has been a challenge to catch all of those coveted “ah-ha! moments” while teaching because they come so frequently from so many of the students while we are here. We have the students keep a journal while they are here and I am always fascinated by the things that stick out to them the most and form the highlights of their daily entries. Last year, I started a blog for the school and documented our activities during the school. This year, I asked students to do blog entries for each day, which provided another little window into their takeaways from their time here. You may read their reflections on the UNL Mummy Studies Field School – Sicily Study Abroad blog. I’m still amazed at the kinds of progress that can be seen in just a few, short weeks. I can imagine that as a student, coming to the MSFS would be a truly horizon-broadening experience. As an instructor, it has been some of the most rewarding time that I have ever spent engaging in professional activities. I am looking forward to many more years of salty breezes, seafood, and student stories.