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facts & arguments

Ciaran Griffin

I'm a teacher's teacher. That is, I teach teachers-in-training at a local university. I do this for a living and have for many years.

This summer, right after the term's final exams, I travelled with 10 of our education students to Cameroon for two weeks. The students worked in a local school each day, and I led the evening classes for the required course: social issues in education.

I suppose such travel studies are now popular in many universities across Canada. They didn't exist when I was a student. Any course, be it geography, political science, literature or music, can be arranged to fit almost any exotic location.

Our university offers numerous travel studies every summer and they are quite popular - with students. Not with professors. Why would a professor give up time in the summer to be with students 24/7 for weeks? The very thought is outrageous for most of us.

I can understand why university students want to see the world in such a way. The trip is planned for them and they get a course (or two) done as well. Most travel studies are affordable, good fun and efficient. Students can still get back in time for their summer jobs, so if they have the extra cash, it's a terrific investment of their time and energy.

What I had never understood was why any self-respecting university professor would volunteer to give up summer research time (read: laze around and read in the backyard) to teach and chaperone students in a foreign country. Surely professors see enough of students during the term. I had never considered being a part of such extracurricular activities. Even as a teacher's teacher, I have always been protective of my non-teaching time.

But an opportunity presented itself. A visitor came to campus last year and shared details of her life as a principal at an international school in Cameroon. She told us about teaching abroad and encouraged new teachers to consider this option.

After more discussion with her and lots of student encouragement, I agreed to arrange and lead a travel study to her school. It took me a year to organize the trip, and it consumed way too much thought and energy.

I admit I was reluctant and spent most of the year regretting that I had agreed to do it. I had been to Africa before and was happy enough to travel there again, but as a travel study it felt like a big mistake. It was so much work for no clear payoff and too few students.

I shouldn't have worried. The trip was a total hit. The students loved it. And, though I was dreading the loss of my own time and living in close quarters with my students - sharing meals and jet lag and culture shock - these experiences were powerful. Who needs the comforts of electricity or running water when you can walk side by side along a red-dirt African road with young people who are so excited to see the world, haven't seen much of it yet and desperately want to understand it.

I hadn't considered that seeing things through their eyes would be a significant gift to me, a mid-career university professor who does much the same thing year after year. It was me who felt energized discussing sociology in a backdrop of incredible societal difference. It was me who felt fascinated in how to reconcile educational theory with real lives.

I hadn't prepared for these young people sharing their impressions, their fears, their amazement and their enthusiasm as we visited an African market, sang in a church, stood in the heavy rain and encountered extreme poverty and harsh conditions.

I thought I would serve as some academic tour guide, showing the students what to do, how to feel, what to say, where to go. I assumed the experience would be a bit of sacrifice of my time for their good. But being with them and their youthful buoyancy injected my weary heart and mind with freshness and softened my aloof professor stance. We were so clearly fellow travellers, learning together.

We talked quite a bit about the guilt we felt at spending thousands to get there while facing the grinding poverty experienced by many Cameroonians. Maybe we should have sent the money to some African charity, saved ourselves the bother and stayed home.

Maybe travel studies are an incredibly self-indulgent, privileged and selfish enterprise. We shared this thought with a local African woman who responded with a hurt look on her face: "But we don't want your money. We want you."

This desire for relationship was a shift in understanding for me, an epiphany. Such changes in viewpoint are something we teachers think we can prompt in our students; that is our job, after all. So to be jolted into a new understanding alongside them while trying to make sense of a complicated world is something to ponder. It was a gift and I knew it.

Maybe these travel studies aren't so much for students but for professors to get out of our comfortable ruts. It's a big world. We say this to them all the time to encourage them to go see it. Maybe we should be saying the same thing to ourselves. Such adventures can deeply nourish the soul.

Yes, it was a lot of work and a loss of privacy and comfort, but now, now I get it.

Allyson Jule is a professor of education at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., and lives in New Westminster, B.C.

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