For the past two years, Mechelle Best, Chair of the Department of Recreation and Tourism Management, has arranged trips to Greece for multi-cultural groups of students where they can earn units toward graduation. Some of the students who took the trip in the last two years had never left the US, while a couple of others had never been on a plane.
Best specializes in Sustainable Tourism which includes studies of tourism’s impacts to natural and cultural resources. “I’ve been convinced that studying abroad creates an opportunity to learn and grow in ways that one would be unable to at home,” said Best. “I certainly benefited from completing two degrees in countries other than my home. For students of tourism, travel abroad is especially important because it gives them a better understanding of the phenomena of the global tourism industry they are studying.”
For the trips, Best teamed up with Nancy Alonzo, a former RTM Graduate student who specializes in addressing racism, micro-aggressions and classism. Alonzo currently serves CSUN as Senior Community Director of Student Housing and Conference Services, trains student leaders, and is an organizer of the Latinas Rising support group, in addition to her engagement with other organizations that work toward equity.
A shared interest in making the world a more connected, understanding place led the two to the conclusion that Greece is an ideal destination for students to get a better understanding of Western cultures. “Greece offers an opportunity to help students understand the basics of tourism and more specifically cultural heritage tourism, in a location that is widely regarded as the foundation of western civilization,” Best said.
So the two began devising ways for students to take brief, educational trips that could show them new horizons. The busy, economically-restricted lifestyle of students does not always jibe with the idea of international travel. But through a field study course, students get the opportunity for the real-world experience of seeing and understanding different cultures through travel and tourism, beginning with short trips that fit into their lifestyles.
Since 2009, Best had been arranging one and two day trips to Santa Barbara and also short trips to the Cayman Islands, understanding that it is not always feasible for students to travel, and that it’s even more complicated to take much more time than a week or so. The success of these trips led to a search for ways to encourage students to make a greater leap into real-world experiences in the nature and economies of tourism.
As a graduate student in RTM’s, Tourism, Hospitality and Recreation Management program, Alonzo had participated in a study abroad to Greece with Ilias Tomazos, a professor at the University of Connecticut and Director of the Paideia Society. Since the 1980s, Tomazos, who is Greek, had been organizing study abroad experiences of varying lengths to Greece. Alonzo and Tomazos kept in touch, tossing around ideas about how Alonzo’s affinity group, Latinas Rising, would be able to have a similar experience. The decision was made that Tomazos would organize a special spring break study abroad for Latinas Rising and Alonzo asked Best to extend the invitation to RTM students. Best then saw the opportunity to build a field study around it which would allow students to earn units through the experience.
In 2018, Best, Alonzo and Tomazos traveled to Greece with twenty-five students. For the 2019 study abroad, there were nineteen students and one volunteer along with Best, Alonzo and Tomazos. Each of the classes’ students engaged in weekly online discussions on travelling sustainability and cultural heritage, with periodic on campus meetings to prepare for their travel which included a road trip from Athens to Thessaloniki with stops to visit historic sites along the way.
“Last spring we made the whole trip educational,” Best said, “Even in the airport waiting for flights we had experiential learning sessions. In the airport during a layover in Paris, we talked about ways to offset the carbon footprint that travel creates.”
Students also learned how traveling together in one vehicle—a bus as opposed to renting cars—reduces environmental impact (and helps travelers get to know each other).
“The students learned about the value of spending money locally, shopping off the beaten track at local markets, and how to show respect for the existing culture through appropriate dress and behavior,” Best said. “They were also taught about the CSUN code-of-conduct which reminds them they are guests in another country and need to respect the rules, and not touch or take anything from the ancient sites or local landscapes.”
Understanding Greece as an origin of democracy, studies of Greek culture and myth all combined to create an environment of comparison and contrast to democracies today and the foundations of the principles our cultures rely on for guidance. “For students to be able to learn this history of the world on the sites where it unfolded is invaluable,” Best said.
Best, Alonzo and Tomazos will be returning to Greece with another group of students during spring break 2020.