A group of Education majors recently traveled to Spain for a comparative study tour that gave them the chance to observe the facilities, education and employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities outside the United States.
Sean Ramsden

Rider Education majors had a landmark study abroad experience in Spain in June.

Brittany Moore ’14 wasn’t sure what to expect. The sophomore Elementary Education and Spanish dual major had been to Spain before, during an exchange program in high school two year earlier, so it wasn’t the foreign land that had her uncertain.

Moore was one of a dozen Education students from Rider who traveled to the Universidad de Alcalá in Madrid this June to observe the teaching and learning experience for people with disabilities beyond the United States.

“What I wasn’t prepared for was the special education aspect of the trip,” said Moore, who carries a minor in English as a Second Language, but is not part of the Special Education program at Rider, and had never been exposed to special education schools. “I was moved to tears on more than one occasion, but they were mostly happy tears.”

The three-credit course was the brainchild of Dr. Michele Wilson Kamens and Dr. Dianne Casale-Giannola in response to Rider’s Strategic Plan goals to develop international education and opportunities. Kamens, who previously spent time at Alcalá during a summer fellowship, proposed a study-abroad experience for Education majors to Giannola, whose doctoral dissertation actually involved international education.

The result is what Kamens, professor and director of Special Education programs, calls “the first official opportunity for Education students to study abroad within their course of study.”

Students had the choice of earning credits in a comparative education study of methods and effectiveness entitled: Special Education Abroad, or completing a final course option assignment in SPE 202: Society and Individuals with Disabilities.

Moore chose the comparative education option, and is grateful for the chance to explore another side of teaching.

“I am so thankful for this experience, because it has definitely broadened my horizons not only as a person, but as a future educator,” she said.

For other students, such as Nicole Tassello ’13, the trip provided perspectives many had yet to encounter. An Elementary Education and Psychology major with a minor in Special Education, Tassello was making her first trip abroad, and arrived with little command of the Spanish language. What seemed like a disadvantage became an opportunity for insight, however.

“Being placed in a country where they speak a different language makes you realize how important it is to be able to communicate well,” she recalled. “It was especially beneficial to students like me who had a Special Education minor because it allowed us to see what it is like to have a disability.”

Giannola, an associate professor of Education, explained that the students were able to compare and contrast the educational experiences of individuals with disabilities in Spanish schools and communities with the experiences that same population might have in the United States.

“They also visited schools and talked to the various stakeholders – teachers, parents and educational administrators – to determine what transition and employment opportunities are available for young adults with disabilities,” Giannola said.

What the students found was not always what they expected.

“Their school system did come as a slight shock to me because of the way that it’s set up,” Tassello explained. “Students with disabilities are placed in schools that offer them a great education and allow them to be placed in occupational centers after schooling.”

Kamens says there was a cultural component to the trip, as well. “It was an opportunity for students to discover the Spanish culture in its own right, as well as discover how it impacts children, in terms of how it supports students of diverse populations,” she said.

Tassello agreed, adding that continued international experiences for Education students would prove invaluable.

“We had a chance to visit the American School in Barcelona, and it made me realize how amazing it would be to be able to teach or student-teach abroad,” she said. Moore agreed, adding that the rigorous schedule demanded of most Education majors sometimes precludes them from study aboard experiences, but, “Learning about our major overseas makes us even more worldly and marketable,” she suggested.