Short-term summer courses put study abroad within reach for more students

For the past two summers, students and faculty at Whitman College have been engaged in a pilot program exploring a new type of study abroad experience.

Known as Crossroads Courses, the summer classes take students outside of the U.S. for three to six weeks for intensive study in an area of expertise for Whitman faculty. The program not only complements the existing Whitman academic experience, it also makes study abroad more accessible for students, said Susan Holme, director of Off-Campus Studies.

The framework for Crossroads Courses was designed by faculty members Aaron Bobrow-Strain, professor of politics, and Leena Knight, associate professor of biology, in collaboration with the Off-Campus Studies staff and the Off-Campus Studies Committee, which oversees study abroad programming. Crossroads is modeled after existing stand-alone, short-term summer courses, such as the U.S.-Mexico Border Trip and the Whitman Summer Studies in China program, which began in 2001.

“We had that model of one stand-alone summer course for academic credit. That helped us move into a structure for Crossroads Courses — offering multiple courses in multiple disciplines,” Holme said.

The first year, Crossroads sponsored two trips — one to Sweden to study pollination with biology Professor Heidi Dobson, and the other was the Summer Studies in China program.

For the final year of the pilot program, the courses will return again to Sweden and China, as well as Copenhagen, Denmark. Each trip can take 12-15 students. In addition to drawing on faculty expertise, the trips also partner with experts and institutions in the host country.

Unlike traditional study abroad courses that are geared toward juniors and seniors, first- and second-year students are encouraged to apply for Crossroads as a way to explore new ideas and majors, Holme said.

“It’s about enabling students who aren’t necessarily a classics major or an environmental studies major, but maybe a first-year who wants to get a sense of what those fields are,” Holme said. “The idea is that younger students can also participate, and it gives them a window to fields they might not have thought about taking.”

The short-term summer programs are also a good fit for students whose academic year schedules won’t allow for a full semester abroad experience, such as student-athletes and some double majors, as well as those who are uneasy about studying abroad by themselves and would prefer to travel with a group of fellow Whitties.

“There are some students for whom a semester abroad is a little intimidating. They might not feel comfortable committing to a full semester away from friends at Whitman and family at home,” Holme said.

Crossroads also offers financial aid packages to cover travel and program costs.

“We feel really strongly about having a system in place that would reduce financial barriers to participation. A big reason for designing this was we wanted any student to be able to participate regardless of financial need,” Holme said. “We’ve gotten lots of support from the administration and financial aid staff to designate a specific set of funds for students with need so that they can participate. During the three-year pilot, we’ve been able to help students not only with the fees, but even with airfare.”

All students can benefit from some kind of off-campus studies experience, whether that’s a traditional semester abroad or a shorter-term Crossroads course, Holme said.

“It seems that in the 21st century, it’s more important than ever for students to understand the perspectives, challenges and accomplishments of people outside the U.S. borders,” Holme said. “Those are things that can be read about in books, but there’s no substitute for talking to people in their communities about everything from the physical environment to the arts, or social problems that they might be encountering. Those conversations will help students understand their own biases and the perspectives they are coming from as a result of either being from the U.S. or elsewhere.”

The Student Perspective

Participants in the 2018 Crossroads Courses share highlights from their trips. You can read more student experiences on the Whitman blogs.

Shanghai: Second Language Acquisition in China and the USA

Shanghai was beyond my expectations. My favorite part was meeting my language exchange buddy, who is now a good friend.

Whitman College Crossroads Courses
Laurinda Nyarko '19

As part of our activities, we were paired with students from the university who wanted to speak with native speakers so as to practice their communication skills in English. Icey, who was my buddy, and I got along really well. We talked about our different cultures, how we shared a similar love of music and ended up celebrating her birthday at a very special lunch, which was honestly one of the best meals I had while in Shanghai.

Shanghai treated me well and I look forward to more opportunities like this where I would get to adventure, to engage with different cultures and to gain a deeper understanding of the world around me so as to be a better citizen of this world.

— Laurinda Nyarko, Chemistry, Class of 2019


 Emily Rigsby '20 Crossroads Courses Trip
Emily Rigsby '20

As a first-generation college student, I have felt really grateful to be able to spend three weeks learning and growing as a young adult! Before this trip, I had never traveled outside the Pacific Northwest. During the trip, I learned how to be patient with myself and others, gained the confidence to try new things, and learned how to ground myself in scary situations. My time in Shanghai has been wonderfully memorable. One day, our class visited Shanghai’s M50 Art District. We explored many artists’ studios and met some very friendly artists! As a mediocre water color painter, I really enjoyed spending time exploring and seeing different styles, media and color choice! One exhibit that really caught my attention was the Shanghai Pride Exhibit. The gallery showcased the history of Shanghai’s LGBTQ community over the past 10 years and the development of Pride in Shanghai. I learned a lot from the exhibit and I was very excited to share what I learned with my other classmates.

— Emily Rigsby, Music, Class of 2020


Annie Xue '20 Crossroads Courses Trip
Annie Xue '20

I decided to attend this Crossroads course because of my interest in learning different languages and more about the Chinese and American education systems. Even though it sounds weird to study abroad in my hometown, it turned out to be a rewarding experience to explore the city I am most familiar with, but still have a lot to learn about. One of the places we went that left a deep impression was the Propaganda Museum. It exhibits most of the propaganda art works from the establishment of People’s Republic of China in 1949 to the end of the Cold War. I did not feel comfortable from the first moment I walked in. The descriptions of each piece are in English and Spanish; it is clear that foreign visitors are targeted. I think since it is essentially Chinese history, whether people want to face it or not, Chinese people like me should be more aware of and reflect on that particular period of history. The history of cultural revolution is heavy, but the exhibition was great, inspiring my reflection on the history itself and people’s reactions and attitudes toward 20th century Chinese and world history.

— Annie Xue, Undeclared, Class of 2020

Rome: Landscape and Cityscape in Ancient Rome

“It is now housed in the Vatican Museum.”

This phrase can be found on the bottom of object descriptions from locations across Rome. During our three weeks in Rome, we made dozens of visits to sites across the city that represent a variety of different time periods, both ancient and Renaissance, and this phrase came up at almost every single one. Each time I heard it, the anticipation for our trip to the Vatican brewed.

Ethan Phillips '19 Crossroads Courses Trip
Ethan Phillips '19

After three weeks of traveling around Rome, the time had arrived for our trip to this renowned place. I felt ready, but was truly unprepared for the extravagant showing I was about to receive. You learn early on that you are not going to be able to see everything and you have to be OK with that. My personal favorite was seeing “The School of Athens,” by Raphael. This fresco is one that I have gazed upon count-less times in history classes when learning about ancient philosophy. I love this fresco, and getting to see it in person was one of my favorite experiences from my entire trip to Italy. The museum, and the class overall, taught me many things, possibly the most important is that you need to get out and see things. Learning about things that interest you in the classroom setting is a privilege, but there is real value in going out and seeing them in person.

— Ethan Phillips, Economics and History Studies, Class of 2019


It was an amazing trip! After getting over jet lag, settling into our apartments and exploring the neighborhood, we started our tour of the monuments of Rome.

Melia Matthews '20 Crossroads Courses Trip
Melia Matthews '20

One of my favorites was Domus Aurea, or the Golden House of Nero. Our whole group had to wear hard hats during the visit. Inside it was cool after the heat of a hot Mediterranean summer, but I think the best part was getting to experience a virtual reality tour within the house itself. We all sat down, put on VR goggles, and got to see the house in all its opulence and glory. We truly got to see what it was like in ancient Rome — at least for the emperors! This was definitely one of the best excursions we had in Rome; we felt so integrated with the city, being right next to the Colosseum we blended the ancient construction of imperial Rome with the tourists, Metro, and bright yellow hard hats of modernity. The days were jam-packed, but everything we see is awe-inspiring and my classmates are so fun to be around — I couldn’t imagine exploring Rome with anyone else!

— Melia Matthews, Biology and Classical Studies, Class of 2020