By Karen Campbell
Visits to a bullfighting ring and palace, flamenco dancing, soccer and lots of tasty food make for a good trip to Spain.
Add in an additional stop in Morocco, with not one of the 12 in the traveling group able to speak the language, the opportunity to visit a mountain village and eat with a family, overcoming challenges in the market, plus a few more surprises and it’s another successful experience for students in the Ned Ray McWherter Institute (NRMI) at the University of Tennessee at Martin.
For Savannah Stanley of Mt. Juliet, traveling to Spain and Morocco with nine other students was her first international experience. For fellow junior and seasoned traveler Alex Dunn of Dresden, the trip was simply reinforcement of her love of exploring other cultures. For both, planning and executing the March 1-10 itinerary broadened perspectives and forged friendships.
They, along with other NRMI participants, chose their destination, researched costs and cultural norms, and selected the various activities that would make up their daily itineraries. They spent two nights in Madrid before arriving in Marrakesh and then taking a train ride to Casablanca.
“The international travel experience is designed to challenge the Innovators and push them outside their comfort zone,” said Steve Vantrease, the NRMI manager who, along with Carrie Humphreys, assistant professor of Political Science and International Studies, served as the adult support for the group. “As faculty/staff mentors, we have to be sure this is done in a safe and educationally sound way. In doing so, we are proud to see them succeed and see how they benefit from the experience.”
According to 21-year-old Dunn, who is majoring in health and human performance, and 20-year-old Stanley, who is studying organismal biology, the learning experience was such a rich one, they are ready to do it again.
“I’ve got a new perspective on things I usually take for granted,” said Stanley post-trip. She references the people she witnessed in a small village on an excursion to the Atlas Mountains. “I’m trying to take one day at a time [like the villagers]. I love how they embraced just being together. They had a selflessness, always doing for someone else.”
Even Dunn, whose previous travels include Cuba, the Bahamas, Mexico and Puerto Rico, felt she was pushed, in a good way, outside of what was comfortable. As an example, she recounted how the group was ushered into cars after landing in Africa and, without benefit of explanation, dropped off at the entrance to the old city, complete with “dancing cobras on the street and monkeys on leashes” and then escorted by “two guys with carts” to the riad (a former family home which is now a hotel) where they were staying in Marrakesh. (They later learned that cars were not permitted within the old city and their reception was typical of all travelers there.)
Riding camels (twice), successfully discerning what was being served in the traditional tagines and learning to love the lamb chops, lamb burgers, salads and (for some, though not Stanley) seemingly never-ending supply of mint tea were high on the lists of positives. They even raved about a cooking class that included a stop in the market to purchase a chicken, which was alive when chosen and within 10 minutes had been killed, plucked and bagged as they watched.
Not so positive were the reactions to unintentional snafus of taking unwanted photos and catcalls in the streets. But with each small setback came new understanding.
Stanley said her own curiosity about camel riding helped her better understand the questions she’s often asked as a barrel racer with UTM Rodeo and the visitors to Nashville who don cowboy hats and boots in a skewed effort to look “country.”
“You don’t think you scream tourist, but you do,” she laughingly confessed.
Dunn was so taken with the cultural opportunities, she refused to slow down, even when the itinerary called for a few hours of rest. “I don’t take a single day for granted,” she explained of her travel philosophy. “I like to seize the moments.” Those moments include checking out what McDonald’s serves in Morocco that isn’t served in the U.S. (The answer is beer.)
Dunn easily responds when asked what her next destination is — Australia and New Zealand. For Stanley, it’s Italy. But first, both are headed to further study to become physicians’ assistants — a discovery they say underscores the benefits of joining a program like NRMI.
“I wanted to be better prepared for my future, that’s what they [NRMI] promised and they delivered,” Stanley pointed out, adding that the other participants’ diverse personalities and majors add to the experience as people with very little in common begin to work together.
Dunn agreed that NRMI delivers on friendships as she looked to Stanley. “She rodeos; I scuba dive. We are diverse, but unified because of this experience,” she said.
“I can’t imagine my college experience without it.”
The Ned Ray McWherter Institute is a three-year, progressive, interdisciplinary program customized to the individual student and focuses on Discovery, Refinement, Experience/Exposure, Application, and Mentoring.
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