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Study abroad opportunities enhance student's experience

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Posted on Friday, March 6, 2020

From broadening your worldview to gaining real-life context to complement your classroom studies, the benefits of studying abroad can be countless. For Spanish major Emily Russell, the language skills honed overseas are enhancing her spring student teaching assignment back home in the States.

In her four years as a Westminster student, Russell—now a senior who is also minoring in secondary education and psychology—has spent two separate weeks in the Dominican Republic as well as an entire semester in Spain immersing herself in the language and culture that she has been studying.

She first traveled to the Dominican Republic for an educational service trip with four other students in May 2018 with Dr. Joel Postema, associate professor of Spanish, and Dr. Sararose Lynch, associate professor of education. There she practiced her Spanish and instructional skills while participating in cultural exchange activities with students in Sabaneta de Yásica. She also collaborated with Dominican Republic teachers about teaching strategies.

“This was an amazing experience for me because the whole discussion was done in Spanish,” said the Bethel Park student. “I could listen to the conversation and learn about teaching, but also soak up as much language as possible.”

Just a few months later, Russell packed her bags again and spent her fall 2018 semester studying abroad in Seville, Spain, where she lived with a host family, giving her an inside perspective about Spain’s culture and history, its people, its quirks and daily life.

“There are so many things that you learn when you study abroad that you can’t learn in school or in the bubble that we live in,” Russell said. “You have to go out there and experience it.”

Russell also had the chance to student teach in Spain with four different grades in two different schools. She taught a preschool class at a bilingual school and students in first, second and eighth grade at a semi-private school.

The teachers who invited Russell to teach in their classrooms allowed her to try any type of lesson that she wanted. This freedom allowed her to experiment with a wide array of lessons and activities, like singing songs with the preschool students, playing games with the first- and second-grade students and doing collaborative projects and cultural exchanges with the eighth-grade students.

“It was like having a whole bunch of paint colors and a blank slate in front of you,” Russell said.  “The students in Spain taught me so much, and I honestly believe that so many of the things that I will take with me into my future career are things that I learned in these Spanish classrooms from these Spanish students.”

Russell returned to the Dominican Republic in May 2019 with the same goal as the first time: to share some instructional strategies and to teach English language and culture.

“After going the first time, I was completely enthralled with the people, country and culture,” Russell said. “I dreamed about being able to go on this trip ever since I first heard about it, and I’m incredibly thankful to have been able to experience it twice.”

This time, Russell got to experience some different activities, like incorporating English instruction into a science class and gym class. Specifically, she and her peers conducted a banana lab with students where they extracted the DNA from a banana. With some of the younger students, they did various gym class activities that taught the children the names of actions, like jump, walk, dance and run.

Though Russell certainly benefited from the teaching opportunities, she cherished the time spent with the people who welcomed her into their communities.

“I loved eating dinner with them, playing cards with them and talking with them,” Russell said. “That was probably the most life-changing part of this experience—being able to connect with these wonderful people on such a personal level.”

Now, Russell is using the experiences she gained teaching in the Dominican Republic and Spain as she student teaches at Wilmington Area School District, where she is teaching Spanish to fifth- to ninth-graders.

“It’s fun to see what students respond well to, and I love seeing students make progress,” Russell said. “The best part about teaching is truly when you see students grasp something new and when you see them use the things you have taught them.”

As Russell nears the end of her Westminster journey, she is thankful she was able to study abroad and feels that her experiences will give her an advantage during her future job search. And she’s right to feel this way; a recent Erasmus Impact Study showed that 64 percent of employers feel that potential employees who studied abroad can offer more to the workplace.

“I have had such diverse experiences and by studying and learning in foreign countries, I have developed a strong set of transversal skills,” she said. “I’ve received experiential learning opportunities at Westminster that are far beyond what I ever could have imagined.”

~ Danielle Grady '20

If you are interested in learning more about Westminster’s study abroad opportunities, please visit our website or contact Dr. Michael Aleprete, director of global education and associate professor of political science, at alepreme@westminster.edu or 724-946-7254