We asked some SRAS graduates to share their open and honest evaluations of their experiences on SRAS Study Abroad in Warsaw. SRAS actively seeks out feedback from students on all programs so that we can continually improve our offerings.
Benjamin DeYoung (Summer, 2015)
Note: this is an evaluation of Crossroads of Empires, SRAS’ inaugural Warsaw program. That program has since evolved into the more focused and polished Security and Society in the Information Age, which retains many of the best part of Crossroads including its rigorous nature and the fantastic staff of Collegium Civitas, including Professor Richie.
Two weeks before getting on a plane to begin the “Crossroads of Empires” program, having just graduated from Reed College, and in search of adventure in the months before my upcoming Fulbright Teaching assignment, I paid a visit to Reed’s director of international programs (who also happens to be my father), and expressed my desire to possibly study abroad before my Fulbright began. Knowing it was very last minute, and not necessarily expecting study abroad to be an option (as most of the deadlines had already passed), I was delighted to receive a phone call a few days later informing me of what sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime: a study abroad program with an emphasis on international relations, specifically in a Central European context. As I plan on applying to Georgetown’s School for German and European studies this upcoming year, the program sounded like a perfect opportunity to get some insight into a field that I looked to pursue in the near future. I quickly committed to the program, packed my bags, said my goodbyes, and arrived at 29 Grojecka Street in Warsaw, Poland on the afternoon of the 31st of May full of anticipation.
Like all of my fellow program participants, I arrived in Warsaw with virtually no idea what to expect from the “Crossroads of Empires” program; A veteran of three study abroad trips before arriving in Warsaw, however, I was fairly sure that, although I knew relatively little about this particular course, I knew what the basic structure of the study abroad experience would look like. From the very first day, this assumption proved to be incorrect. In other courses that I had taken part in, there were normally three-hour class periods scheduled Mondays through Thursdays, after which there would be free time to explore the city, optional weekend excursions, or time to work on projects or papers. Upon going over the schedule on the first day of the “Crossroads” course, it became clear that this would be two or three times as rigorous as other programs I had taken part in. Each day, class was scheduled to begin at 10 A.M. with lectures going until 1:30 P.M., followed by either more lectures after lunch, a group excursion, a movie, or some other scheduled activity. This resulted in an average of about six or seven hours of scheduled time a day, with extensive readings assigned for each set of lectures, which left very little time for personal exploration and/or free time during the week.
Though I have never been one to shy away from a challenge, and was thrilled by the broad range of speakers that were scheduled to come give lectures, this was, in my eyes, and in the eyes of my fellow program participants, excessive. There was the sense among many of us that we were not left with ample time to explore the city, and to engage in the culture that we had flown so far to experience; at times, we had the impression that we spent the majority of our time in the classroom, which was not what most of us had expected from a study abroad trip. After days that often included more than four hours of lectures and either a guided museum tour or some other excursion, we were usually so exhausted by the time we returned home that we wouldn’t leave the apartment again until we left for class the next morning.
Having said that, the amount of effort and energy put into providing us with an extensive introduction to central European history and politics by Professor Richie and the program coordinators was truly astonishing. Every step of the way, those in charge of the program were open to feedback, and were fully committed to providing us with every opportunity to learn as much as possible about the things we were interested in, whether or not they were in the curriculum. Throughout the trip, it was clear to all of us that Professor Richie’s first priority was to aid us in any academic and/or cultural pursuit, to provide us with the resources we needed to follow up on any question, and to introduce us to those professors and professionals who were on the cutting edge of the fields we wanted to delve into.
Every step of the way, Professor Richie was open and willing to shape the program in such a way that we would get the most out of it, which was not always an easy task, especially considering the wide range of interests that the various program participants brought to the course. Some examples of this were a complete overhaul of the schedule when a few participants expressed interest in a greater emphasis on defense and security topics, a representative of the Freya Von Moltke Foundation joining us last-minute on a Berlin boat tour after I expressed interest in some of the topics that her foundation works on, and various other instances on our weekend excursions when Professor Richie and Kasia were beyond flexible and accommodating to the needs of the group (allowing me to stay an extra day in Berlin at the last minute, staying behind with students who wanted to attend a defense and security seminar in Krakow, organizing a wheelchair for a student who sprained his ankle on the trip so he could take part in the tours, etc.) I was continuously humbled by Professor Richie’s energy, enthusiasm, and seemingly endless knowledge, all of which came together to make for a truly unique study abroad experience.
All in all, this was an excellent course. Though the amount of time we spent in the lecture hall did feel excessive at times, and we often quipped that one could easily fill two months with the amount of material we covered in one, we were truly honored to work with somebody as brilliant, talented, and genuinely excited about teaching as Professor Richie. Our hosts at the Collegium Civitas were fantastic as well, and made it very clear how happy they were to host our group at their university. We felt very strongly that study abroad was a priority for the CC, and that it will continue to be a large part of the University in the years to come, with our group hopefully being but some of the first of many American study groups to take part in the Crossroads program.
As far as recommendations for the future of the course go, I would suggest either actually extending the course’s duration, or choosing either history or politics as the main focus of the course, and making it clear from the outset which of the two will be the focus. I also felt that there were some guest speakers that could have been left out, as they often repeated material that we had heard previously, and that the time slots for the speakers could be shortened across the board. It was the general consensus among most of the students that we would rather have heard twice as much from Professor Richie, and considerably less from some of the speakers, especially those who had full three-hour time slots (and often seemed as though they could have covered what they wanted to say in half the time.) I would also suggest conducting the class in more of a conference style, leaving more room for open discussion, rather than simply having one lecture after the next.