Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Summer 2012 (July 12, 2012)

2 Seminars Abroad, 40+ Years Later

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July 12, 2012
By Lynn Vollbrecht'06

Charlotte Stern Guirao’71 clearly remembers the afternoon she arrived in Granada, Spain, more than four decades ago. She met her host family, realized she was already falling in love with the picturesque landscape, and headed out for a walk—at which point she promptly got lost.

She was surprised at her own reaction. “I didn’t panic, because from the moment I set foot in Spain I felt a sense of peacefulness which I never had in my hometown,” recalls Guirao, who eventually settled in Spain. “I asked someone for directions, and not only did they give them to me, but they also took me to my destination. I began to realize that the U.S. was not the only country in the world, and that there were other people with the same thoughts, feelings, and problems.”

Guirao was part of a group of 19 Beloit students on a biennial, semester-long seminar to Granada in 1969, led by alumna and Spanish professor Nancy Nieman’61. Like so many Beloiters before and after (including participants in an innovative interdisciplinary seminar to Germany and Sweden in 1972), she found that the experience changed her life. These student travelers often wound up learning as much about themselves as they did the local language and the subjects they studied.

Seminars in France 

These seminars were much more than the academic lectures delivered in the classroom or even the basic cultural osmosis of living in a foreign country. Beloiters found themselves immersed in unexpected lessons that would affect the rest of their lives and form their ideas about history, immigration policies, environmentalism, love, sex, gender roles, child-rearing, urban planning, hospitality, business, politics, and, in at least one case, how to conduct a morning commute.

“When you’re in a foreign place, everything you’ve ever been taught about how to behave is different,” says Nieman, a professor emerita of Spanish at Santa Monica College in California, where she still occasionally teaches. “You eat differently, you hold your knife differently, you stand closer. Things your mother always used to scream at you for are what you’re now supposed to be doing. It frees you.”

Granada’69 and Germany/Sweden’72

By the time Nieman signed on as director for the 1969 trip, the Beloit seminar in Granada had already been through two iterations, initially set up by modern languages professor Don Murray.

“I think college administrators were nervous about sending a 29-year-old girl as the head of it,” she says. “But I spoke Spanish like a native. I knew so much more about life in Spain. The kids, I think, felt safe with me.”

Nieman’s youth and gender may have initially flummoxed her superiors, but her closeness in age made it easier for students to relate to her.

“Back then, in Franco Spain, we were really strict with them—and they were really quite innocent,” Nieman says. Students were given stern instructions to be mindful of the fact that they were entering a conservative culture.

All 19 Beloit students were enrolled in the same handful of classes at the University of Granada, taught by Spanish professors. They studied lingua (the equivalent of grammar), history and civilization, art history, and literature, and took day trips and tours. After their semester in Granada, they spent a week in Madrid, where many of the Beloit Plan-era students stayed on to teach English for a semester as their required field term.

The idea of a large, seminar-style semester abroad with dozens of fellow Beloiters is a departure from the more individual style of study abroad that many students pursue today.

“When [seminars abroad] began, costs abroad were relatively cheap, making it possible for the college to cover the costs of the accompanying faculty members as well as their spouses,” explains Elizabeth Brewer, Beloit’s director of International Education. “As universities abroad established international offices to provide support for students, it became easier for students to enroll directly in universities.”

These days, Brewer explains, “Most of the students we see for advising are pretty fierce about wanting their own experience, escaping the Beloit bubble, and not spending a semester with other Beloit students. There are exceptions, of course, but many Beloit students see a semester abroad as a way to test themselves and figure out what they can do on their own.”

There can be drawbacks to this more highly individualized approach; it can be more difficult for a faculty member to help a student synthesize his or her experience if said student travels solo. Beloit programs like International Symposium and Cities in Transition courses are meant to assist in that process of reflection. There are still some short field terms, like those in Nicaragua and Jamaica, which mimic the seminar style.

While the Granada seminar was typical of study abroad experiences at the time, the Sweden/Germany seminar was considered extremely innovative for its interdisciplinary approach. Led by Chris Wheeler and Tom Tisue, professors of government and chemistry, respectively, the seminar focused on the politics of pollution control, giving students a firsthand view of the cause (industrial plants in Germany) and the effect (damage to forests in Sweden).

“We had all been introduced to interdisciplinary work our first year at Beloit with the Underclass Common Course,” says Richard Klug’73, who embarked on that seminar in 1972 with two dozen other Beloiters. “In addition to being interdisciplinary, the seminar was unusual for not concentrating on the language and culture of our host countries. As a government major concerned with the environment, I was drawn to the subject matter.”


The semester started in the middle of a Swedish winter. “Spending a winter in Stockholm made all the Ingmar Bergman films I watched much more understandable,” says Klug, now a filmmaker himself.

“The focus of the seminar was to research and understand both the environmental and political aspects of how acid rain was affecting various countries in Scandinavia and Europe,” says Bill Neukomm’73. “Scientific research had pinpointed German steel mills in the Ruhrgebiet as the source of much of the sulfur dioxide that was destroying coniferous forests in Sweden and Norway.”

Professors Wheeler and Tisue arranged for participants to interview senior members of the Social Democratic Party in Sweden, including Prime Minister Olof Palme, in an effort to understand how the Swedish government legislated the problem.

Some of the most intense moments of learning about international relations, however, came over the breakfast table.

Every morning, the Beloiters ate in a common area of the international students’ dorm, which led them to meet a group of Vietnamese engineers on exchange from Hanoi. “The only common language we spoke was German,” Neukomm recalls. Hanoi was then on the receiving end of a Nixon-era bombing campaign, which could have created tension at the breakfast table.

“Beloiters fully expected harsh condemnation from the North Vietnamese. Instead they made careful distinctions between the policies of the American government and the attitudes of the American people,” Neukomm says. “They were very aware of the widespread American opposition to the war in Vietnam. Every morning for breakfast, our friends from Hanoi were polite, civil, and respectful in spite of the rain of bombs.”

From Stockholm, the Beloiters headed to Düsseldorf, where they saw the sources of pollution as well as the effects of World War II some 30 years earlier. “I will never forget the meeting we had in the boardroom of Krupp and August Thyssen steelworks, hearing what these two companies were doing to install electro-static scrubbers in their factory smoke stacks in response to pressure from the Swedish government,” Neukomm says.

The people, 40 years later

Though the experiences of Beloit students abroad will always vary, many agree that these periods changed their lives. It was so for the students who attended both of these seminars, but not always in likely ways. Some were expected—many reported growing up in small Midwestern towns and gaining a tremendous confidence in finding a more global outlook.

“I had been a sheltered working-class Catholic schoolgirl when I went off to Beloit, and this was my first time abroad,” says Maureen Moore’71, who attended the Granada seminar in 1969. The experience solidified her decision to major in Spanish, and she wound up with a career cataloguing in the Library of Congress, using the language regularly. She even had a reunion of sorts with her old professors from Granada.

Stell Mill Germany“I’m not sure that any of us at 18, 19, or 20 years old fully appreciated the reputation and quality of these professors. But when I was at the Library of Congress, cataloging these books from Spain, I catalogued books by all of them,” she says. “As it turned out, every single one of them was a world-renowned expert in their field. It just was magical.”

Moore was the driving force behind a reunion of the Granada seminar participants at Beloit’s Homecoming/Reunion last year, and Guirao and Nieman were among those who attended (members of the Sweden/Germany seminar had a similar reunion in 1997). Guirao’s career has been shaped by the seminar, as has her personal life—she married a Spaniard she met on a blind date in Granada, and in the late ’70s, they returned to Spain to work as educators, even founding their own language-learning academy.

Ideas introduced in the Germany/Sweden seminar play a constant role in the life of Tom Dickinson’73. “I first learned about ‘smart growth’ and ‘limits to growth’ in urban and suburban areas during this seminar,” he says. “For the first time, I was exposed to and learned about such things as environmental hazards, pollution, ecological systems and dependencies, and the role of governments, political parties, and individuals in preventing damage to the various earth ecosystems. This sensitivity and awareness has stayed with me since then. I can’t see a lake or river without wondering about the degree of eutrophication taking place.”

Having worked for the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, D.C., for many years, Dickinson carefully plans his commute to include a combination of walking and public transportation.

“I live in a big city environment, and the impressions picked up during this seminar have always prompted me to choose to live in a place where I could rely on public transportation to get around,” he explains.

For some, the most dramatic impact of international study was the way it inspired self-confidence.

Nieman recalls one student on the seminar who traveled the world alone for a year after Granada, going to Italy, India, Cambodia, Australia. “When we left Beloit, she was the last person I would have ever thought would strike out alone. But that’s what this experience did for her,” she says.

Lynn Vollbrecht’06 is the assistant editor of Beloit College Magazine.

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