Waking up at 5 a.m. to walk over 100 miles and acquire a collection of blisters is not a typical course requirement at the 14 Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) universities. However the 28 students who participated in the 2016 PASSHE Honors Summer Program are not typical students, and “The Road to Santiago: A Medieval Pilgrimage from Leon to Santiago de Compostela, Spain” was not a typical course.
From May 9-30, 2016, two honors students from each of the 14 state system universities traveled to host Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), and then on to Spain to explore the country’s culture and history. The students received three academic credits in the process.
El Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of Saint James,” guided their journey from IUP to Madrid to Leon to Santiago. The route originally existed as a Christian pilgrimage, with the destination at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela reportedly containing the remains of Jesus’s apostle Saint James the Elder. El Camino is now traveled for a variety of purposes.
One of the students traveling El Camino last summer was Zach Cober, a member of Millersville University’s Honors College. “I’ve been a fan of historical and religious studies for a while now, but it was the hiking part that got the attention of the Eagle Scout in me, and I figured it really was the trip that was configured for me specifically.”
The purpose of the group of students participating in the 2016 PASSHE Honors Summer Program was to expand their academic understandings through an unforgettable international experience. Each day, the group woke up around 5 or 6 a.m., gathered their belongings and began walking. Pit stops for pictures and food allowed the students to soak in the Spanish culture as they visited both tourist and non-tourist locations.
After arriving at a daily destination, students would shower, find sleeping arrangements and eat a big dinner. Each day they read articles, poems and historical documents, wrote journal entries and attended class.
The weeks of hiking involved rough weather conditions, sunburn, blisters and exhaustion. But students also received an opportunity to explore and understand Spanish culture, to create new bonds, internationally and in Pennsylvania, and to reflect on their lives.
“Adjusting to Spanish life was probably the most challenging part, but it wasn’t too bad,” remembers Cober, a multidisciplinary studies major studying economics, philosophy and history, and set to graduate in May 2017. “It was just a lot of walking, but it was definitely rewarding as a way to emotional, physical and mental growth.”
Aside from its positive effects on character and academia, the most impactful aspect of Cober’s summer honors program experience was the relationships. “There were a lot of interesting people and each person had their own reason for hiking,” he says. “Some people we met for just an hour, but some were with us all the way to the city of Santiago. That was really cool.”
In addition to those he met on the trail, Cober also stays in touch with the other students from the PASSHE Summer Honors Program nearly every day.
The 2016 trip to Spain is just one example of the PASSHE Summer Honors Program, which has provided honors students across the commonwealth with the opportunity to study internationally since its inception in 1985. The annual academic experience first arose to facilitate collaboration in the State System and to broaden students’ learning experiences through the exploration of international topics.
PASSHE sponsors the program, giving each participating student a full scholarship to cover the cost of tuition, room, board and travel. The 14 State System Universities rotate as hosts. Millersville University hosted the program in 2011, which involved an intensive history and archaeology field school in Bermuda.
A competitive application process selects the students, who must be undergraduates at a PASSHE university, members in good standing of their institution’s Honors Program, returning to the university the following fall and have completed a minimum of 30 hours of coursework at a State System school.
“I hear a lot of people who love studying abroad talk about how great it is and that everyone in college should be required to do it and it will change your life, but when you bring up that not everyone can afford to do it they go pretty quiet on the topic,” says Cober. “I would not have been able to financially justify any study abroad program during my undergraduate if this opportunity had not come along and presented itself to me, and I’m sure a good number of other people at this school are in the same position.”
The next PASSHE Summer Honors Program, “Explore Belize,” will take place in the summer of 2017 and be hosted by Mansfield University of Pennsylvania. Students will meet a variety of Belizeans and interview them about the challenges faced by this small, English-speaking and incredibly diverse population. Students will be exposed to the wonders and beauty of Belize as well as its poverty and problems.
Eligible and interested students should contact Dr. Dennis Downey at Dennis.Downey@millersville.edu or 717-871-7553 for more information.