A new program at Mercer aims to open up faculty-led study abroad experiences to new graduates, alumni and community members. This past summer, 10 community members went to Greece and five Class of 2022 graduates went to Spain as “Lifelong Learners.”
The program was spearheaded by philosophy professor Dr. Charlotte Thomas in conjunction with Mercer’s Office of Global Education. Dr. Thomas has been leading students on international experiences since 2000, and a few community members have joined for each trip.
She said she noticed early on that these community members supported the student experience by improving the trip dynamic, adding positive energy and deepening conversations. Students saw that these people were seeking out this experience because of its academic components, which surprised them and gave them a new perspective.
“These are thoughtful, curious people who want to travel but really want to engage with the things they see and the places they go, and they want to travel with people who are also engaged. That’s not something you get on a typical tour,” Dr. Thomas said.
“I love the mutually reinforcing dynamic — that the Lifelong Learners really enjoy being around the students and the academic environment and, at the same time, the fact that they’re drawn to that gives the students another perspective on what they’re doing and helps them see it through the eyes of the Lifelong Learners.”
Now that Lifelong Learners is an official program, Dr. Thomas hopes to see even more community members take advantage of these opportunities to go abroad with Mercer. There’s a market as well as a demand for this kind of travel experience.
The program is open to everybody, and so far, participant ages have ranged from 20s to 60s, said Emily Dunn, assistant director for the Office of Global Education. It’s up to the individual faculty leaders if they’d like to invite recent grads, alumni and community members to join their study abroad trips, and the hope is that more will begin offering that option.
“I’d really like to see a growth in the program where we can get a couple Lifelong Learners on each of the programs and open it up for nontraditional study abroad as well,” Dunn said.
Mercer’s study abroad programs are a good fit for people who want a travel experience that is simpler and immerses them in the local community, Dr. Thomas said. Many like the idea of traveling with a group and being accompanied by faculty who know the area and its history.
“What’s really nice for them is the support they have. A lot of these faculty have been running these programs for years,” Dunn said. “It’s also very different from a normal travel agent trip that they might go on. It is still a study abroad program, so some of the things they’re going to be doing are a little bit nontraditional. They can learn right with the students. They are going to have somebody with them that’s an expert in that field.”
This summer marked the third Greece trip for Nina Talon, a Macon resident who was in the Georgia-based Americana band blueskyblue with Dr. Thomas. She said one of the biggest draws of the program is the fact that Dr. Thomas leads it.
“Because of the person that Charlie (Thomas) is, she has cultivated these relationships with people in Greece so that every aspect of the journey is taken care of,” Talon said. “That makes you feel safe, because you definitely are not alone there. There’s no aspect of where you’re going, what you’re doing, where you’re staying that hasn’t already been planned.”
Talon went on the first trip because her health was declining and she thought she might not physically be able to go later. But her health improved, and she went again the following year and was able to enjoy it even more. And this summer, she took her 14-year-old granddaughter, Kendall, with her. She said they both had a fabulous time, and the Mercer students fell in love with Kendall and took her under their wing
“I just really like being there,” Talon said. “Greece is beautiful, and I like the history of it. I like that so much of sane, reasonable thought processes come from there. It’s nice to go and bask in that aura for a little while. Just learning and hearing the history, it cements it in. I think we should all be traveling the world learning about places.”
Lifelong Learners don’t have to do the academic work the students do, but they have access to the course materials. They also don’t have to adhere to the itinerary, but most of them do, Dunn said.
They have a lot of freedom to customize their experience, Dr. Thomas said. For her three-week Greece trip, students tour sites in the morning, attend classes in the afternoon, and eat together and learn about the next place they will visit in the evenings. Most of the Lifelong Learners spend their mornings and evenings with the group and go their own way in the afternoons, although some choose to attend the academic seminars as well.
“The material, context and opportunities to read more and learn more, it’s all right there, and they can do as much or as little as they want. They have a home base, and they have support,” Dr. Thomas said.
The Lifelong Learners stay in separate, nearby housing from the students, providing them with a home base where they can settle into the city and really learn their way around it, Dr. Thomas said.
A few recent graduates participate in the study abroad program in Seville, Spain, every year, said Dr. Fernando Palacios, associate professor of Spanish. He and Dr. Lydia Masanet — who have alternately led the trip since 2007 — wanted to make sure graduates had another opportunity to visit a Spanish-speaking country if they hadn’t had time during their undergraduate studies. COVID-19 kept some students from being able to study abroad earlier, Dunn said.
Because it’s an immersive language program, students are required to have already completed two years of Spanish courses, and they are housed with a local host family, Dr. Palacios said. The Class of 2022 graduates didn’t need the course credit but wanted the experience. They didn’t have to take Dr. Palacios’ class while in Spain, but they did complete a Spanish Studies Abroad course offered by a local institution.
“The students need to get into a language immersion (experience),” Dr. Palacios said. “That is what we want them to have, so if they have not been provided that while they were taking classes, a good option is to go right after graduation.”
Faith Velez, a global health major and Spanish minor who graduated in May, said she had been wanting to go on the Spain trip since 2019, but things kept getting in the way. When Dr. Palacios encouraged her to go after graduation, she ran with the opportunity.
“Being over there and seeing different cultures and seeing how they do everyday life, I’d recommend that to everybody. I was very grateful for the opportunity,” she said.
Velez plans to go to nursing school after she finishes a few prerequisites, and the medical Spanish class she took during the study abroad trip will be useful in her future career.
“Being able to be fully immersed in the Spanish language really helped in terms of learning,” Velez said. “My speaking definitely improved. Now I’m going back to school in nursing, and I plan to use the two together. I want to go abroad and work abroad. (This experience) gives me the upperhand and makes me more culturally competent and well rounded.”
Community members who are interested in joining a Mercer study abroad trip can browse the programs listed at mercer.terradotta.com and reach out to the faculty member listed to see if they can participate, or contact Dunn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The price depends on the college and program, and the cost for Lifelong Learners will vary from what is listed online.