Though her family hails from Spain, and Spanish is actually her first language, Sara Molle ’14 nevertheless considered a recent Study Abroad trip to the European nation “the experience of a lifetime.
“I had never experienced this area of Spain before,” she explained. “Its beauty and educational opportunities captivated me. I cannot wait to go back.”
Molle was among 12 Education majors who traveled to Spain following the spring semester to study the country’s education system while learning how individuals with disabilities are educated there. The group was just the second class to enroll in a three-credit comparative education study of methods and effectiveness entitled Special Education Abroad.
Created by Dr. Michele Wilson Kamens and Dr. Dianne Casale-Giannola to develop international education and opportunities for students, the course allows participants to compare and contrast the Spanish special-education system to that of the United States while immersing themselves in the culture of Spain.
The students spent two weeks in Alcalá de Henares, a small city about 40 minutes outside of the Spanish capital, Madrid. Students lived with host families, made school visits daily, and attended evening classes at the Universidad de Alcalá.
“Sometimes we would even hold class at cafés or in the town’s square,” recalled Kristen Geevers ’14. “Spain just had such a relaxed atmosphere that I miss now being busy and back at home.”
Dr. Sharon Sherman, dean of the School of Education says courses like Special Education Abroad serve to deepen the perspectives of Rider students on a number of fronts.
“International education connects us with nations around the world, exposing our students to different languages and cultures,” said Sherman, who accompanied the students to Alcalá, along with Kamens and Giannola. “It’s especially important for teachers to understand how children live in different parts of the world. They bring this knowledge with them into their classrooms.”
Kamens, professor and director of Special Education programs, and Giannola, an associate professor of Education, offer this comparative education study annually to students as a three-credit course built into their program, or as a capstone assignment to SPE 202: Society and Individuals with Disabilities. Their idea developed after Kamens, who previously spent time at Alcalá during a summer fellowship in 2009, proposed a study-abroad experience for Education majors to Giannola, whose doctoral dissertation actually involved international education.
The Special Education Abroad course represents the first opportunity Education majors at Rider have had to participate in a study-abroad experience as part of their 126-credit Education major. Previously, they could elect to study abroad as part of the core or a second major.
Sherman enthusiastically endorsed the idea, and is glad she did.
“Our experience was especially meaningful as it enabled Rider Education majors to look at ways in which students with learning disabilities and special needs are educated both in Spain and the United States,” said Sherman, who accompanied the group to Spain. “As a result of the school visits, students grappled with ideas about inclusion and equity while living in a different culture and experiencing a language barrier. It was quite a growth experience.”
More than half of the students who embarked on this journey now say they are interested in student-teaching abroad. While on the trip, Sherman, Kamens and Giannola met with school leaders and arranged global student-teaching opportunities in Madrid and Barcelona. They also explored partnership opportunities where teachers from Spain could “study abroad” by enrolling in Rider’s graduate programs.
Rider will begin its global student teaching placements in the fall. Students will divide their student-teaching time, with nine weeks in the United States and eight in Spain. They will also have cooperating teachers and university supervisors in both countries.
“I know this is where I am meant to be,” says Molle. “I want to come back here and not only student-teach but hopefully teach full-time in Alcalá after I graduate.”
The trip not only inspired ideas of future employment, but also enlightened Special Education major Alicia DeGraw ’15 about how best to serve students with disabilities – sometimes after first witnessing ineffective methods.
“Going to Spain really opened my eyes to the potential of students with special needs. At the first school we visited, one of the administrators told us that since the students have a hard time with Spanish, why bother trying to teach them English?” said DeGraw, disheartened by what she had seen. “But at another school we visited, each student had a specially designed book to help them learn English. That is what struck me during this trip. With the right teachers, tools and attitudes, these kids are doing things that I can only dream about in the States. It definitely excited me for my special education classes in the near future.”
Though not all of the students who participated in Study Abroad are studying Special Education, the experience served to open eyes to the challenges faced by individuals with disabilities.
“The culture and language barrier allowed us to experience, in a sense, what it is like to be learning-disabled, due to our lack of comprehension,” said Laura Mervin ’13, a Secondary Education and English dual major
In their free time, the students and their professors took day trips and explored the cities. The class spent a day visiting Segovia and took several excursions into Madrid for chocolate and churros, rowboat rides, and the Sunday afternoon flea market. The group ended the course in Barcelona, where students were given time to tour the famous city and visit the American School of Barcelona.
Stephanie Holman ’13 had a similar wonderful experience and encourages education majors to embark on this journey.
“I loved every minute of our trip,” Holman said. “I learned about things that could never be experienced in a classroom. This wasn’t my first time abroad, and I encourage every student to do all that they can to study abroad as much as possible. Nothing can compare to it.”
Sarah Sell ’13 was among the 12 Education majors who participated in the study abroad trip to Spain.