St. Mary's offers students life changing travel courses

MORAGA, Calif.

As a student, stepping onto the St. Mary's campus also means stepping out of your comfort zone.

In January, 13 students and two teachers spent nearly a month in 27 cities in Colombia to gain a better understanding of the South American country.

"Usually when you say Colombia all you hear about is drug trafficking, cocaine, that's all you hear, I wanted to see the real Colombia," student Yesenia Chavez said.

Before traveling there, students spent an entire semester with their teacher, Myrna Santiago, focusing on Colombia's development, its ecology and the condition of women, leaving out the drug trafficking and the violence.

"We saw everything but that, we saw they are ecologically savvy," student Alicia Villanueva said.

"If you are not given all the information, you only see one side and there is no way for you to change or have any perception of what is given to you," Kathleen Sueltz said.

St. Mary's is gaining notoriety for its "Jan Term." During the month of January, students are deeply immersed in a culture. There are 13 trips to different countries offered every year.

"It's the opportunity we have to step out of our disciplinary boundaries and explore anything we want to explore," Santiago said.

What they learn abroad stays with them long after they return.

Those students who cannot afford to travel usually apply for financial aid or are given a scholarship.

"That's the goal, that in the coming years every student who comes to St. Mary's will have had the opportunity to have traveled at least once," Santiago said.

St. Mary's also offers students the chance to take part in their Christian service internship. Students who volunteer go to countries or cities in need like New Orleans, Tanzania, Dominica and Haiti.

"It's so clear Haiti needs us the most; we've been in other disaster zones before, we've been in places of great poverty, but in Haiti, we find there was no structure for anyone to fall back on," liberal arts professor Shawny Anderson said.

Andres Aguilar is a senior who spent some time tutoring boys in Mexico City. Most of them came from broken homes.

"I really enjoyed meeting a lot of young minds and having an effect on their understanding for the meaning of an education," Aguilar said.

Anderson leads the groups. In Haiti, they worked to improve water and sanitary conditions. Each student posted a blog letting his or her community and parents know what they were doing.

"What happens for most students is they come back and they change everything, they change the way they live their lives, they change the amount of things they accumulate, a lot of them change their majors," Anderson said.

Students say the work allows them to see a different part of themselves.

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