Interims abroad are anything but a vacation for students

When my application for Education 170 – an interim course in the Twin Cities – was denied, I was a bit salty. Like many other off-campus interim courses, ED 170 sounds extremely interesting but unfortunately, as an international student, I was required to be on campus for my first interim. Sitting in my dorm room alone one night (ironically, because my roommate ended up taking ED 170 and I had a “single” for two weeks), I started contemplating about what one can possibly do in the short amount of time that they spend abroad over interim.

Surprisingly, despite the high price and the short time that one gets to spend abroad, St. Olaf students from various academic disciplinary are still willing to take off-campus interim programs. When I set out to talk to students who paid up to $3000-4000 for 30 days away from school, I was curious as to what pushed them to choose those short-term, seemingly unpromising programs.

One particular student I talked to recently came back from an interim off-campus and was lucky enough to avoid the Minnesota snow storm while soaking in the sunshine by the beaches of Honolulu. This was Jon Hollister ’19, a social work major who took ED 378: Multicultural Education in Hawaii: Seminar and Practicum course.

“We would wake up at 6 a.m., take the shuttle, get to school around 7:30, then we would stay there until 3 in the afternoon,” he said.

He shared about the packed schedule that him and his classmates had. Over the course of a month, Hollister took on a student teaching position, tutoring younger children in both public and private school settings and was completely immersed in Hawaiian culture. As a rising senior, Hollister said ED 378 in Hawaii was “extremely educational.”

Besides ED-focused courses that St. Olaf offers, there are programs that put an emphasis on improving language by adapting to the culture. One such course was Spanish 233: Intermediate Spanish in Ecuador, that Meghaen Mleczek ’20 took. Unlike Hollister who lived in a hotel for the month, Mleczek had the opportunity to stay with a Spanish-speaking host family in Ecuador. Her daily schedule composed of 3 hours of class time in the morning, then spending the rest of the day with her host family. According to Mleczek, the goal is to speak as much Spanish as possible over the trip.

“It didn’t feel like a vacation at all,” she said, “I got to speak Spanish a lot with the host family. I feel like I have improved a lot and I am more confident speaking Spanish.”

One of the main reasons why interim courses still remain popular among studious St. Olaf students is simply because it fits well with their busy schedules. For Hollister, social work has rigid requirements, so the only time that he could possibly take advantage of the study-abroad programs that St. Olaf offers is over interim. As for Mleczek, though she advised student with a single major to go on semester-long programs, she took an interim course, herself, because it worked well with her once-was chemistry major schedule.

Both Hollister and Mleczek enjoyed the interim courses that they took and seemed to have accomplished a lot despite the short duration of the trip. However, when it comes to taking interim off-campus, financing for the trip is always an issue. According to Antonia Grant, St. Olaf’s International Off-campus Study Coordinator, the reasons why interim courses are costly are mainly different housing (short-term stay in hostels and hotels create one of the largest budget impacts), experiential excursions (that are pre-arranged and built into learning objectives of the course), and less funding from donors (as more scholarship dollars are usually used to support semester/year long off-campus study program). Fortunately, St. Olaf College automatically considers every student for financial aid and apply it directly to the cost. Hollister, Mleczek and my roommate all benefited greatly from this.

Sitting in my room and typing up this whole article, I thought to myself how funny it is that I can never fully understand how great interim abroad is unless I have experienced it. Though I am still a bit salty at the fact that I had to spend interim on campus, I am pleasantly surprised at the responses I got from my conversations with Hollister and Mleczek. Interim abroad isn’t a vacation after all. In the end, the trip away from the cold and the wind on campus only adds on to why St. Olaf students enjoy interim away so much.

Skye Nguyen ’21 (nguyen32@stolaf.edu) is from Hanoi, Vietnam. She majors in English.

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