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Currents: learning to see

Global Beginnings Shows First-Semester Students a Whole New World

“What do you see?” asks the art history professor. The group of 17 first-year Colby-Sawyer students gazes to where her finger points. It is 9:30 a.m. on a Monday in early October, and they squint to take in the enormous work. “Tell me, what is the story of the art you are looking at?”

Rachel Keefe, an honors student and soccer player from Maine, correctly identifies the stories of St. Francis, then answers a barrage of follow-up questions. She is rewarded after each with a cheery “Bravissimo!” When the professor asks the students if they have questions, they do: Is that an angel at the top of the image, and what does it represent? And there, is that a man tumbling out of a high window? It is, and soon they see the same piece in a completely new way than when they first laid eyes upon it just half an hour before.

The art in question is not a PowerPoint slide in a Colby-Sawyer classroom but 15th-century frescoes in the Sassetti Chapel of the Basilica di Santa Trinita in Florence, Italy.

Just 370 miles to the north, 15 Colby-Sawyer first-years are filing into their Pathway class at the historic Château de Pourtalès in Strasbourg, France. They settle in as Colby-Sawyer Professor of Natural Sciences Bill Thomas picks up the theme of Seeing the Light: From Faith to Photon.

“It takes a lifetime to learn to see,” Professor Thomas tells the class. “In the womb there are just different shades of darkness; after birth, a baby learns its parents' faces; then the world gets bigger and bigger. But sight is only part of vision; it's learned. You can look but not see. Seeing is a challenge, and college is learning to see at a different level. Information has to be unfolded.”

These 32 students, accompanied by Colby-Sawyer's Assistant Professor of Humanities Ewa Chrusciel in Florence and Professor Thomas, as well as residential staff members at each site, are the pioneers of Global Beginnings, the college's largest study-abroad initiative to date. These first-semester freshmen are learning to see not only from a college student's perspective but also with an expanding worldview as they commence their college careers far from New London.

Fitting In With Florence

Firenze lives behind walls of stone and windows framed by green shutters, and for three months, the Global Beginnings students have a key to get behind those walls and into their apartments at 7 Via Ghibellina, just minutes from Santa Croce and the Arno River. Many of them seem to pretend their time in Florence will last forever, putting off a trip to here or there until “later,” even as they count the days to family visits and their own departures.

Others, though, are only too aware of how rapidly time is passing and do all they can to immerse themselves in the Tuscan hills that soon will be replaced by Colby-Sawyer's windy hill, in the restaurants that will be replaced by a dining hall, and in the unity of the group that will be tested when they return to new roommates and classes full of freshmen they have never met.

Amanda Martin, from Bennington, Vt., and Paige Estabrooks, of Hingham, Mass., spend a lot of time together exploring the city, and Paige is very clear regarding how she feels about the experience just five weeks in: “I love it,” she says. “I don't want to go back home. Time is moving too fast. We've been so on the go, with visits to Siena and Assisi— and we know we're going to the Alps, Rome and Venice—that this weekend we're actually going to stay home so we can go to more of the museums and things right here in Florence.”

Amanda concurs, marveling, “Some people can't wait to go home, but I dread thinking about leaving, I feel like it's gone so quickly. I was talking to my dad last night and told him he was going to have to visit. He said, 'I thought I wasn't allowed to,' and I said, 'If I accidentally miss my plane and end up living in Florence forever, then you're allowed to visit.'”

On this morning, walking to the Mercato di Sant'Ambrogio, where locals know to find the freshest produce in Florence, Amanda is proud to realize that the black cowl top and dark jeans she's wearing—even her boots, which she picked up during a recent weekend in Switzerland—were all bought in Europe.

“I don't feel I look European, but I'm trying. I hate sticking out like a tourist,” she says. “We're here for three months, so I want to blend in as much as I can. We're somewhere between tourist and resident, really.”

Both girls studied Spanish in high school, and though that background is sometimes helpful, they wish they knew more Italian. “We're so stuck within our group and want to venture out so badly,” says Paige, and Amanda adds, “We've tried to talk to Italians and it just ends in laughing fits because no one knows what anyone's saying.”

In the market, though, no one laughs at them. Paige and Amanda make a beeline for their favorite cheese vendor, a man who beams at them from behind the counter and calls them “bellissima.” Over the shouts and hum of the market, he talks to them like a father who hasn't seen his daughters for too long and gives them slices of bread generously smeared with ricotta cheese and topped with salami to try. Against a backdrop of unpackaged meats piled high in a display never seen in American supermarkets, he patiently waits while the girls consider their options, ruling out cheeses they have already tried and choosing new tastes. He gives them their cheese with a smile, and they move on to a fruit vendor.

Selecting apples, Paige and Amanda talk more about the group dynamics of the Global Beginnings Program. The 12 women are split into two apartments, and the five men share one. While incredibly bonded and supportive of each other overall, the students live together, eat together, and take all the same classes together at the learning center located a few minutes walk from the apartments. The men seem fine, and the women in one apartment are getting along well, but the others are still negotiating the challenges of group living.

“We were talking about this last night,” says Amanda. “We spend all our time together and should be going out every night to meet people. But, at the same time, we're taking six classes, so I think that's part of it—we get a lot of work so that pulls us down. I just love it here too much to have enough time to see everything I would like to. Everywhere we go, I love.”

Oh, to be able to clone yourself like Michelangelo's statue of David, versions of which overlook the city from Piazza Michelangelo, guard the Palazzo Vecchio, and stand in the Galleria Academia. To have three selves in Florence would be almost enough. Almost.

Settling Into Strasbourg

On the fourth floor hallway of the Château de Pourtalès, tucked under the eaves of the 300-year old palace, Elise Nichols from Wilton, N.H., has found a quiet corner for working on her laptop. The ring of a telephone interrupts her and she clicks on the Skype icon on the computer screen—her mom is calling.

Elise gently tells her mother that she can't talk now, promises to call later, and disconnects, smiling. What has she learned about herself in the five weeks she's been in France?

“I think I've learned I can actually live without my mother, though she might not care to hear that,” Elise says. “I have one of those mothers who likes to do everything for you, and now I'm doing everything for myself. I'm proud of myself. I used to rely on her for everything, but I've learned I can do more than I thought I could.”

Hearing her voice, Jose Diarte, from Paraguay, and Miles Wylie, from Massachusetts, wander down to join Elise. They and the 12 other students in the France group left just four days after the students bound for Florence, but they didn't arrive at the Chateau until Sept. 19. The group spent 10 days exploring the treasures of the City of Light, then took five days to drive to Strasbourg in Alsace, next to the German border. Along the way, they stopped at Chartres Cathedral, chateaus, a cheese tasting, museums and a concentration camp.

After the whirlwind of orientation on campus and then two weeks of activities in Paris and on the road, it was hard to settle into a life at the chateau which more closely resembled that of a residential college. With two quiet weekends set aside for the students to adjust to their workload and take a breather in their new home, the group in France started to get antsy and feel a bit like younger siblings as they heard stories of the Florence group's independent travel, even as the promise of their own travel adventures awaited.

Not even two miles from the center of Strasbourg, the Château feels a world apart from the busy capital of Alsace, with its beautiful park setting and hundreds of acres of gardens and trails. Strasbourg is close, though, and easily accessible by bus with passes provided to students. In 20 minutes, the Global Beginners could be studying in a library surrounded by university students, or sitting at a café watching scenes unfold before them, but many find it hard to leave the comfort of the Château.

“It's frustrating to have all this temptation around us because we want to go out and experience things and travel and all that, but we have to find time to do our work and balance stuff,” Miles says, after being at the Château for two weeks.

Finding the balance early on may be hard, but it's not impossible. At that very moment, Maria Cimpean, a first-year honors student from Romania, stops by to ask the three if they will attend the first group dinner planned for that evening. She has just returned from grocery shopping across the border in Kehl, Germany, where things are less expensive, and she is looking for volunteers. Elise agrees to be a dishwasher. Maria sails away to continue recruiting and organizing.

A few hours later, in the kitchen where students prepare their breakfasts, lunches and some dinners, a small crowd gathers around the stove top—they have discovered the four chickens are still frozen. Professor Thomas swings through and solves the problem, though is dismayed when told his assistance is appreciated but no longer needed.

“I am taught to do things for my elders,” Sugam Rai, a student from Nepal who has taken on the role of head chef, explains later. “We wanted to do this dinner for him to enjoy, not make more work for him.”

While some students chop and shred piles of vegetables, Sugam and Wang Yu Jia from China hover over the stove. Almost four hours later, the 15 students, their professor and three guests sit down to a feast.

“I'm really glad I've learned all that I have here in France,” says Greg Desgrosseilliers of Maryland, reflecting on his time in Europe. “The experience is something that's timeless. This experience will not go away. We're all going to take something very important out of this experience, at least one thing. I don't know yet what it will be for me, but every day you learn something new, every day you see something new, every day there's a new experience.”

It's a memorable evening, created through collaboration and goodwill just like the very program itself. The students' time is full of these tiny moments that bind them together; the full impact of their study abroad experience will emerge for years to come, and in unexpected ways. They will always carry with them the memory of exploring beautiful cities, but they might also someday find themselves standing over a stove in their own home, their spouse and children in the background, and smile as they recall a group dinner long ago in France, when they lived in a fairy-tale chateau and launched their college dreams with a Global Beginning.

-Story and photos by Kate Dunlop Seamans