Studying Abroad

What We Didn't See Coming

by Beth D. Tolley (Volume editor)
©2018 Textbook XXIV, 130 Pages


Studying Abroad: What We Didn’t See Coming is a collection of testimonials that documents the unexpected outcomes of study-abroad cultural experiences. It highlights the value of such experiences and the throng of interwoven dynamics, and showcases the educational learning opportunities for those who participate and how their teacher preparation is enhanced. Its most valuable aspect, however, is the illumination of those dynamics that caught all participants unaware—unaware of cultural similarities and differences, the power of relationships, the intricacies of language, the universal characteristics of children, and mostly, unaware of themselves. Studying Abroad: What We Didn’t See Coming offers insight to those considering international travel, those involved in cultural exchange and study, those who want to learn and be reminded of life lessons gleaned through the documentaries of others, and those who simply want a reminder of the goodness of people. This book would serve as an excellent resource for any study-abroad course or program, as well as courses on language education, teacher education, educational foundation, multicultural education, and human growth and development.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword (Dr. Ron Butchart)
  • Preface
  • References
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • References
  • Part One: Hope
  • Chapter One: An Opportunity to Run Away (Sarah Erdman)
  • Note
  • Chapter Two: Packing and Unpacking (Emily Gwaltney)
  • Note
  • References
  • Part Two: Discovery
  • Chapter Three: That Needed Push (Kelli Lewis Daniels)
  • Note
  • Chapter Four: The White Rose (Zarina Maude Wafula)
  • Note
  • Chapter Five: The Need for the “Other” (Benedetta Pantoli)
  • Note
  • Chapter Six: Figuring Out the Puzzle (Tatyanna Vincenty)
  • Note
  • Chapter Seven: One Month of Glory (Ha-Young (Gloria) Yu)
  • Note
  • Chapter Eight: Once is not Enough (Shelly Gleaton Blair)
  • Note
  • References
  • Part Three: Inspiration
  • Chapter Nine: Turning Lemons into Lemonade (Taylor York)
  • Note
  • Chapter Ten: Independence—Who Knew? (Megan Greene)
  • Note
  • Chapter Eleven: Learning from Our Children (Ferrari Family (Anna / Cecilia / Fabrizio / Francesco))
  • Note
  • Chapter Twelve: The Power of Communication (Chelsea Lynn Walker)
  • Note
  • Chapter Thirteen: When in Rome (Jordan Moore)
  • Note
  • References
  • Part Four: Acceptance
  • Chapter Fourteen: No Regrets (Stefania Lancellotti / Camilla Giovanardi)
  • Note
  • Chapter Fifteen: So, How Is the Food? (Bethany McLaughlin Doan)
  • Note
  • Chapter Sixteen: Double the Pleasure (Rachel Miller McKee)
  • Note
  • References
  • Part Five: Subtleties
  • Chapter Seventeen: The Longevity Award (The Corciolani Family (Elena / Laura / Piero))
  • Note
  • Chapter Eighteen: Challenge Accepted (Sara Lorenzini)
  • Note
  • Chapter Nineteen: Things Come in Threes (Natalia Prada-Rey Cooper)
  • Note
  • Chapter Twenty: Connecting Distant Worlds (Concetta Ponticelli)
  • Note
  • References
  • Part Six: Collaboration
  • Chapter Twenty-One: It’s No Act (Davide Vernia)
  • Note
  • Chapter Twenty-Two: Starting a Tradition (Elsa Frignani / Anna Maselli / Francesca Draghicchio)
  • Note
  • Chapter Twenty-Three: A Jewel of a Relationship (Ivana Nobler)
  • Note
  • Chapter Twenty-Four: Leading the Way (Roberta Rinaldi / Anna Giovannini)
  • Note
  • References
  • Epilogue
  • References
  • About the Contributors
  • Index

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For many years college faculty and administrators have known and promoted the many benefits of study-abroad programs. Whether extending a few weeks, a quarter, a semester, or even a full year, such programs often serve as students’ first international experiences. When designed well, they broaden horizons, awaken cultural understanding, and add profoundly to the intended curriculum.

When my colleague, Dr. Beth Tolley, resurrected a study abroad program at the University of Georgia a decade ago, she expected much the same outcomes as those touted in other programs. Studying Abroad: What We Didn’t See Coming describes that program, but reports more importantly on unexpected outcomes. The UGA/Modena Schools Study Abroad Program differed in some important ways from many other programs, and it was those differences that contributed the most to create those things we didn’t see coming.

The standard study-abroad program takes a college course, or usually a set of college courses, the students who would take those courses, and one or more of the faculty who ordinarily teach those courses, and transplants them temporarily on a campus or a center in another country. For example, a French language department might offer the opportunity for advanced language students to take two or three of their French courses in a French-speaking country. They would thereby have more opportunities to practice the language in authentic settings and simultaneously experience more profoundly the cultural setting of the language and literature. In ← xi | xii → some programs, students may also take one or more courses at the host institution and transfer the credits to their own program.

The program created by Dr. Tolley and colleagues in Modena, Italy, was designed specifically for University of Georgia students who intended to become teachers, and particularly, but not exclusively, teachers in Early Childhood Education settings. Modena—readers will recognize Modena as the home of balsamic vinegar—was chosen to host the program not for its cuisine, though that is outstanding, but because Modena is located in Emilia Romagna, the Italian region famous internationally for its path-breaking approaches to early childhood education. The central goal, then, was to introduce to early childhood education students, in the most authentic way possible, the best thinking and practices in their chosen profession.

What makes the program unique; however, is that the students do not go to study Reggio ideas of practices academically. On the contrary, they go to live Reggio. With the close cooperation and collaboration with education professionals in Modena, known as Victoria Language and Culture, the students are placed in classrooms throughout Modena. To the extent possible, they are placed at levels that correspond to their interests, so that those teacher education students who are not specifically interested in early childhood education may be placed in, say, a middle-school setting instead. No matter what level, however, they will all experience the Reggio approach to education, either directly or, at higher grades, more indirectly.

The university students are not placed in the schools to be observers, to sit in the back of the classroom watching the teachers and students. Rather, they are expected, even directed, to be participants, co-teachers with the classroom teachers, even though, importantly, almost none of the scores of students who have participated in the program have any Italian language experience; most have little foreign language experience. They had to learn to communicate and participate in ways not dissimilar to what many children in American schools experience – the discomfort of being the outsider, the language learner, the one not in the know.

At the same time, the program placed students, individually, with Italian families. Placing them individually was an important part of the process: we (for I had the great privilege of being selected to serve as co-director with Dr. Tolley until my retirement) knew that if students were placed in pairs or groups, they would be disinclined to enter fully into the cultural life of the families, preferring to spend time in the refuge of themselves. Our only concession was to select only families who had at least one member who spoke English. Thus between the classroom placements and the family placements, the students experienced a full baptism in learning to learn anew.

During the semester immediately preceding the study-abroad experience, the participants, Dr. Tolley, and I met four or five times for a few hours to talk about ← xii | xiii → logistics and expectations but especially about what they might plan to teach, given the considerable constrains of the language barrier. By the second or third meeting, they each knew the level they were assigned to and most had seen pictures of their classroom and had exchanged rudimentary greetings with the children with whom they would be working. From that, and their academic study of education, they imagined a curriculum they could deliver—American foods, family life in Italy and the US, and so on. During our time in Modena, we held weekly seminars after school, spending part of the time debriefing but insisting on spending a good deal of time in focused, academic inquiry into the dramatic differences in childhood between two cultures, or the contrasts between Reggio schools and the schools they had experienced in the US, or the historical determinants of diverging social and political structures.

Teacher education programs are typically time-intensive, making it difficult to carve out a full semester for a study-abroad program. At the University of Georgia, for example, students spend their first two years completing most of their university general education requirements. Each of the following four semesters includes mandatory practicum experiences in local classrooms, starting with guided observations and culminating in an entire semester-long internship as a student teacher. There simply is no space for a full semester abroad. As a result, our study-abroad program was four weeks long, scheduled at the very end of each spring semester, when Italian public schools were still in session. Consequently, participants experienced classrooms whose rituals and routines were well established, at a point in their own studies when there were no pressures from exams and assignments for other courses. They could focus entirely on what they were experiencing of childhood in an unfamiliar culture, of teaching in unfamiliar classrooms, and of their own learning in unfamiliar surroundings.

What follows, then, is a set of observations from a range of participants in the UGA/Modena Schools Study Abroad Program, all reflecting on what we didn’t see coming when we signed on to this adventure. The participants represented here are not just the students, though their voices are central. The participants include as well the amazing Italian families who opened their doors (and, as it turned out, their hearts) to American university students. They include also the courageous Italian teachers who risked their precious instructional time (not to mention their precious students) to strangers from the US. And, of course, they include the women of Victoria Language and Culture, without whom, quite literally, this amazing study-abroad program could never have existed.

Every year that I had the privilege of working with UGA students in this study-abroad program, I saw the same thing happen to a score of bright, thoughtful, often frightened young university students, yet somehow I saw it anew, never seeing it coming until it happened. At our first few meetings, the students were ← xiii | xiv → excited, a bit nervous, full of the obvious questions – what if my hosts don’t like me? How will we find our way around an Italian city? How can I teach children who do not understand me? As the weeks passed, the nervousness grew, the uncertainty mounted. At the Atlanta airport on departure day, there were tears in the eyes of the students and their families who had gathered to see them off, but mostly brave faces. But hours later, as the bus took us from Milano to Modena, anxiety became palpable. Dr. Tolley and I always leapt off the bus, eager to embrace old friends, but every year the students hung back, slow to step out and meet the strangers awaiting them, even though they had exchanged emails and photographs. But what I never saw coming, every year, was the amazing transformation in four weeks. As we gathered to take the bus back to Milano, a score of young university students wept to part from their new families, who wept with equal sadness. The score of students who boarded the bus were not the same people as those who descended from it four weeks before. They were wiser, deeper, and more mature, with greater understanding of life and learning. I suspect, as well, that they were prepared to be far better teachers, though I think I did see that coming.

Ron Butchart


XXIV, 130
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XXIV, 130 pp.

Biographical notes

Beth D. Tolley (Volume editor)

Beth D. Tolley is currently Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia. She earned her Ed.D. in early childhood education from the University of Georgia and holds awards for her study-abroad program and excellence in teaching.


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