January term journeys
St. Catherine University physics department chair Terrence Flower has a big task to accomplish while teaching his current course: he has to convince 25 college students that the worlds of science and faith aren't necessarily contradictory. And he has one month to do it.
To accomplish this feat, Flower is accompanying his students on a trip to Switzerland and Italy, where they're visiting sites important to the fields of both theoretical physics and theology — disciplines concerned with answering questions about the origins of the universe and of matter. Through visits to the Vatican and two of the world's most famous laboratories, Flower and Phillippe Gagnon, a theology professor at the University of St. Thomas, hope that their course, "Quarks, Christians and the Cosmos in Italy," will help students get to know the universe better — and their place in it.
This is just one of many unique opportunities happening during January, when six Minnesota private college campuses hold January term (sometimes called "J-term") or interim, a monthlong opportunity to study abroad, complete an internship or concentrate on a single course on campus.
"The crossroad of science and theology is an intersection that can't be overlooked, because neither can fully explain the other," Flower said. "This is a neat time to go to this part of the world, because of the experiments related to matter that are going on there," he said. "It's exciting — these are some of the real frontiers of science."
The journey isn't a leisure trip, Flowers emphasizes, but a four-credit academic class. "This is a rigorous course," he said. "The fact is, the students are completing a full semester of work."
The common thread of all January term classes is their intensity, said Kathy Tuma, associate director of international and off-campus studies at St. Olaf College. "It's a more intense opportunity for faculty and students to learn about a topic in a condensed period of time. They can just focus on that one thing."
At St. Olaf, interim began in the late '60s Tuma said; many other institutions with a January term also began offering similar programs in the '60s and '70s. "It was immediately grasped as a time we could do off-campus programs, both internationally and in the U.S, as well as facilitate additional opportunities on campus."
January term fits in well with the mission of many of Minnesota private colleges, which emphasize innovative and interdisciplinary study, exposure to international perspectives and preparing students to lead and serve others.
And while campuses differ in their requirements, many students at St. Olaf choose to take interim, as St. Olaf calls it, all four years. This January, St. Olaf has 549 students studying off-campus for interim in 31 different programs. Interim is a popular part of the academic year, Tuma said, and shows no signs of being discontinued.
"Interim is a great opportunity for students," said Taylor Hannegan, a St. Olaf College senior and political science major. "You can study abroad for a month, get some valuable travel experience and cultural exposure, and then come back. A lot of students don't have time to do an entire semester abroad, or don't necessarily want to travel to a certain place for a whole semester."
Hannegan, who previously participated in a political science course held during interim that traveled to Slovenia, Italy, Croatia and Bosnia, is currently studying abroad again in Cuba.
St. Olaf students study "historical memory" in Cuba
Beginning with her first class in '97, St. Olaf College history professor Jeane Delaney has taken students to Cuba four times. When she learned that travel restrictions for student groups had again been lifted, she saw a great opportunity and began to plan her fifth trip, which she is currently on.
"It's an exciting time there," Delaney said when interviewed for this story before leaving for Cuba. Because of the changes that have occurred there since President Fidel Castro gave political power to his brother in 2011, Delaney said she has made changes in the way she'll teach her course, "Revolutionary Cuba." The course focuses on modern Cuban history, examining how residents recall past historical events, and incorporates lectures from historians and visits to museums and monuments dedicated to national history. She also wants students to get a sense of how people in Cuba live today by pairing them with families for part of their stay, she said.
"I want students to see the good, the bad and the ugly in Cuba," she said. "I want them to say, ‘this is a lot more complex than I thought it would be.'"
In order for her 21 students to be fully prepared for their program, she met each of them one-on-one and held three orientation sessions. The students were also required to read a book about Cuba and pay attention to the news there, she said. This particular tour of Cuba will also be interesting because one of the students going is Cuban-American, and this will be her first time visiting the country, Delaney said.
Delaney said that she believes interim is a valuable part of the academic schedule. "We couldn't get rid of interim without losing a lot of off-campus programs," she said. "Interim not only gets students off campus, it also keeps faculty internationalized."
She also said she enjoys teaching interim. "I like it because I know exactly what students' workload is and I get to see the same people every day, which makes it easier to build a group dynamic. It's a nice variation in schedule."
Don't call this South Africa tour a "trip"
For Ruth Lin, the conductor of the Gustavus Adolphus College symphony orchestra, taking nearly 60 student musicians to South Africa is a valuable educational experience — and one that shouldn't be confused with a vacation. "This is so much more than a trip," she said. "It's an international class."
Every four years at Gustavus, the symphony orchestra travels to an international location not only to perform, but to learn about the country they're visiting. Lin said she chose to go to South Africa because "I wanted to go to a place that I didn't think students would go on their own," she said. "This is a real opportunity to learn about and experience a culture."
Nearly every member of the symphony orchestra will be getting on a plane to Cape Town, South Africa on Jan. 21. They have concerts lined up there through Jan. 27, at a local school for the blind, an amphitheater and at the Cape Town International Music Festival. Then the group will travel to Johannesburg for two more concerts.
When they're not playing music, they will be traveling to some of the poorest parts of South Africa — the rural townships — to participate in service activities. All in all, they will be in South Africa for the last two weeks of interim.
The first few weeks of interim are being spent getting ready for the visit; students have a rigorous rehearsal schedule with Lin and are also taking a companion course that focuses on learning about the country and preparing for the service component of the trip.
Having students volunteer with local residents in need while in South Africa is important, Lin said. "We want the students to be going there not just to tour poverty, but to do some sort of cultural exchange, so they're not just tourists."
The undergraduates are excited about their upcoming journey, Lin said, as many haven't traveled abroad before; for others, this will be their first time on a plane. Above all, she hopes that the students play well and have a good musical experience, she said. "I hope the tour gives them a different perspective on their life, too, and puts their own problems in perspective. I want them to know that while no one is asking them to change the world, there are things we can all do to make a difference."
While this isn't her first time studying abroad during interim, Gustavus senior Meghan Peterson, who plays the violin in the symphony orchestra, said she's looking forward to traveling and performing just the same. "I know our tour will be a great opportunity to improve our skills as musicians while learning about a different culture," Peterson said. "This month is a good time for students to try new things — I think most students find that it's an eye-opening experience."