Students gain broader global perspective through new certificate program 

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The Mercer group is shown at the Mayan Ruins at Iximche in ‎Tecpán, Guatemala.

In just 12 weeks, Mercer students can have 12 credit hours, an undergraduate certificate and an immersive study abroad experience under their belt. 

Right now, the first group is working its way through the new Globalization and Engagement (GLEN) certificate program in the College of Professional Advancement

A global perspective

The certificate and its four courses were designed by Department of Liberal Studies faculty Dr. Fred Bongiovanni, Dr. Tim Craker and Jason Holloway. They team teach three of the courses – Languages in Contact, Globalization and Social Change, and Interpreting Narratives Across Cultures and Around the World – in a blended format with the face -to-face sessions held at Mercer’s Henry County Regional Academic Center. The fourth course is the Global Liberal Studies Practicum, which this time was a trip to Guatemala at the end of January.

The Department of Liberal Studies strives to give students a broader global, international and transcultural perspective as they look for jobs in various careers. This program connects with Mercer’s mission and shows them how to think about the world around them, said Dr. Bongiovanni, department chair and professor of sociology and religious studies. In addition, the certificate adds value to any student’s diploma by showing that he or she has experience in another country. 

The credit hours for the certificate may count toward general education requirements, and the program fee – $2,200 for the current class – covers the flight, hotel, language lessons and meals during the trip. 

The certificate is open to all Mercer students but planned with the schedules of working adult students in mind. The nine-day length of the GLEN trip only required participants to miss four days of work since it included two weekends and a holiday. 

Four students currently enrolled are from the College of Professional Advancement, and a traditional undergraduate student from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences completed the practicum and one other GLEN course, an option instead of earning the certificate. 

The Mercer group is pictured in San Andres Semetabaj on their way to Sololá.

ABOVE: Isabel Lopez (front), Cydney Trimble (back row, from left), Gregory Crews, Dr. Timothy Craker, professor Jason Holloway, April Cantrell and Olivier Williams are pictured in San Andres Semetabaj on their way to Sololá, Guatemala. MAIN PHOTO: The Mercer group is shown at the Mayan Ruins at Iximche in ‎Tecpán, Guatemala. 

A trip abroad

Dr. Craker, associate professor of comparative literature and philosophy, said Guatemala was an ideal location for the practicum because it’s only three hours away by plane and offered great opportunities for language learning. The country also is heavily impacted by forces on a global scale and composed of a number of different cultures, said Holloway, instructor of liberal and historical studies.

While abroad, the Mercer group spent two days in the city of Antigua and the rest of the time in Panajachel. For four hours each morning, the students received one-on-one Spanish tutoring at a language school. They were challenged to order a meal in Spanish by the end of the week, but they were all doing it by the middle of the trip, Holloway said.

After lunch, they traveled to other cities in the Lake Atitlan area and visited town markets, museums, churches, schools and historical sites such as Mayan ruins. They also played games with children at two learning centers and read to them and taught them English lessons.

“The children were holding our hands and running around with us and wanting to Snapchat with us before it was all over with. It was really a lot of fun,” said April Cantrell, assistant registrar at Mercer and a College of Professional Advancement liberal studies major graduating in May.

The goal of the trip was to teach the participants a little of the language while also showing them what life was like for the average person in Guatemala, Holloway said. The students kept a travel journal and took photos to document their experiences from the trip, which they will use to write essays.

The Mercer group is shown with children at the learning center in Sololá, Guatemala.

The Mercer group is shown with children at a learning center in Sololá, Guatemala.

An immersive experience

Cantrell was interested in the GLEN program because of the chance to learn more about the Mayan culture and have an immersive language experience. She knew very little Spanish before the trip and said the language lessons were extremely beneficial. 

“I got a lot out of it. I think that was one of the highlight experiences of my Mercer education,” Cantrell said. “It’s changed me in my viewpoints. It’s more than my small world; it’s a whole big great world.” 

Olivier Williams, a fellow liberal studies major, is already fluent in Spanish but wanted to expand her skillset and learn about the Guatemalan dialect. 

“Our Spanish teachers definitely diversified our perspective,” she said. “They were really a crucial element of the trip. We learned so much from them.” 

The Mercer students and language teachers got to know each other very well as they conversed in Spanish and English and learned about each other’s cultures and lifestyles, Cantrell said. 

Isabel Lopez, a senior global health major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, went on the trip to fulfill the study abroad requirement of her major and is taking one other GLEN course. She has some knowledge of Spanish since her family is Hispanic but wanted to be immersed in a setting where most people speak it as their primary language. She said it was interesting to hear how the language differed in Guatemala and get a glimpse of the day-to-day lives of the people there. 

“As a global health major, we talk a lot about globalization, in general, and how it affects a lot of different cultures and communities throughout the world,” Lopez said. “It was interesting to not just have it read to me in a textbook or told to me from a professor but to be able to look at that and experience it. A real-life example.”

The students who went on the trip represented a wide spectrum of ages – from 20 to 50 – as well as cultures and backgrounds, which provided unique perspectives, Dr. Bongiovanni said. 

“I really liked and appreciated that we all brought different things to the table. We came from all different aspects of education but also life experience,” Lopez said. “That’s part of what made the trip and made our conversations better.”

The Mercer participants ride in the back of a truck, a common way to travel, in San Juan La Laguna.

The Mercer participants ride in the back of a truck, a common way to travel, in Santiago Atitlan.

A deeper understanding

Since returning from Guatemala, the students have been “unpacking” their experiences as they relate it to the coursework, Holloway said. 

“They’re able to pull all of that together and make sense of their experience in a deeper and broader way,” said Dr. Craker. “Instead of seeing their courses as hoops they have to jump through, they can see them as things that can be woven together in a really interesting and beautiful way.”

Williams said she’s able to connect her firsthand experience and knowledge to the course material and compare and contrast what she witnessed in Guatemala with how society functions here in the United States.  

“There are enough of us in the classroom that we can bounce ideas back and forth about why something may be the way it is in Guatemala,” Cantrell said. “Basically, it gives us a broader scope of the world. These are people we’ve never studied before. They don’t know us, and we don’t know them. By studying each other, that’s good for everybody.”

The program helps students have a better global understanding and feel confident in their intercultural competence, Dr. Craker said. They are able to see how closely the world connects and relates and broaden their perspectives, which is beneficial for their time at Mercer as well as in their future careers, Holloway said. 

Cantrell hopes that more working adults will take advantage of programs like the GLEN certificate that allow participants to see and study the world. 

The GLEN program will be offered again in spring 2021. The trip is planned for Jan. 16-24, with additional details to come. For more information on the certificate, email Dr. Craker, CRAKER_TD@mercer.edu; Holloway, holloway_jr@mercer.edu; or Dr. Bongiovanni, BONGIOVANN_F@mercer.edu.

The Mercer group is shown at dinner in Antigua.

The Mercer group is shown at dinner in Antigua.

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Andrea Honaker