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Community and Connection in Barcelona and the Camino de Santiago

Studying abroad has always been an exceptional way for students to gain new perspectives, embrace diverse cultures and broaden their horizons. The Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences (AHS) took a bold and inspiring step in offering its first-ever study abroad program called “Spain: Exploring Community Engagement, Family, & Culture in Barcelona and the Camino de Santiago.” This Maymester study abroad course aims to foster intercultural competence, community engagement, self-reflection and a deeper global understanding of K-12 education, youth, family and community sciences.

The architects behind this transformative program are Maru Gonzalez, assistant professor and extension specialist, and Cintia Aguilar, Latino programs manager with NC State Extension and Co-Founder of Juntos. Both of these individuals advocate for the profound impact that travel and global engagement can have on learning. To make such experiences more accessible and affordable for students, Gonzalez and Aguilar took on the responsibility of organizing most of the logistics typically outsourced to third parties, allowing students to embark on this unique journey. Gonzalez said, “This study abroad program was truly a dream come true for me. I believe strongly in the impact that travel and global engagement have on learning, especially as our world becomes more connected. As someone who has been transformed by travel and cross-cultural engagement, I wanted to do what I could to extend similar opportunities to students in the most affordable and accessible way possible.” 

The program provided an opportunity for 14 undergraduate and graduate students to immerse themselves in the rich cultural fabric of Spain, specifically in Barcelona and along the historic Camino de Santiago. As part of the curriculum, students engaged in exploring education, youth, family and community issues within an international context. This approach nurtured their ability to effectively interact with diverse populations across cultural, geographical, and linguistic differences. One of the standout features of the program was the focus on personal growth while having a culturally immersive experience. 

Students had the chance to engage in various community projects, including working with Martí Codolar, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children, youth, families and communities in Barcelona. Before their arrival in Spain, students collaborated in small groups to design community engagement projects that focused on ages five to 24, which they implemented at the organization during their time there. This allowed them to develop a sense of community during the program. 

AEHS 590 students with participants from the Martí Codolar organization

As they transitioned from Barcelona to the Camino de Santiago, students were able to see the side of Spain that tourists don’t get to experience. The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) is an extensive network of ancient pilgrim routes, ranging from 71 to 621 miles, that stretch across Europe and come together at the tomb of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. The students traveled to Pamplona to hike through the Navarra and La Rioja regions of the Camino over five days and 60 miles. Even though they didn’t speak the same language as the individuals around them, the students grew to learn that they could rely on the support of total strangers on the trail.

An additional project, “Humans of the Camino,” was inspired by the renowned photoblog “Humans of New York.” It allowed students to connect with and learn from the diverse individuals they encountered during their journey on the Camino de Santiago. This project further deepened their understanding of the human experience and the power of storytelling in fostering connections. Gonzalez hoped that the challenges faced during the Camino reinforced the beauty of community, leaving a lasting impression on both the students and the instructors involved.

Corrie Dobis, a student in the course, echoed the sentiments of the human experience. She said, “I was very motivated to go on this study abroad program because I had never traveled to Spain, and I was excited that this specific program would allow me the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the cultural, geographical and linguistic differences between the communities we were planning to visit.”

Several AEHS 590 students with Gonzalez along the Camino de Santiago

Throughout the study abroad course, students were also required to maintain reflective journals. This practice offered them a platform to describe and contemplate their experiences, connect those experiences to the academic coursework, and articulate how the study abroad adventure was shaping their professional aspirations and goals. They were also encouraged not to bring electronic devices in order to learn alternative ways to complete their assignments.

The journey was equally transformative for Kaley Lawing, an AHS student who shared her revelation of the trial. “Through this study abroad opportunity, I grew both personally and professionally as a 4-H Extension Agent. I have never felt so supported or encouraged as I did when studying abroad with my peers and colleagues. I am so grateful for the experience, and for those I shared the experience with. Finding clarity for my life and extending my knowledge of the world and cultures around me was truly a humbling and enriching experience.”

Overall, this Maymester course exemplified the power of immersive study abroad programs in fostering intercultural competence and personal growth. Students had the unique opportunity to learn, serve and engage with diverse communities, breaking barriers and forging connections that transcended borders. Aguilar’s experience of being part of this study abroad program as a co-leader and participant involved a variety of feelings, reflections, actions, physical effort and flexibility, guided by the opportunity to experience cross-cultural engagement in real life. She said, “Community engagement projects, site visits and connecting with people from diverse cultural backgrounds became communication bridges where building community was a priority over any language spoken, age, or country of origin.”

By bringing together academic coursework, community engagement projects and reflective journals, the program provided a holistic and transformative experience that will undoubtedly leave a lasting impact on the participants’ personal and professional lives.

As they say on the trail, Buen Camino (good journey – the pilgrims greeting on El Camino de Santiago) and what a journey it was.