By Genie Smiddy
Going abroad as students and going with them as their teacher are two different ways to experience another culture as part of an academic program. For students, the experience of living in a new country, trying to communicate in a foreign language, and navigating an unfamiliar culture can be eye-opening and enlightening. For teachers, the experience may test the teacher-student relationship since they are no longer just instructors, but travel companions as well.
For Tabitha Benitez, Adjunct Professor, Department of English, this dual role was a natural fit given her passion for travel and exposing others to the gifts that exploring other cultures offers. She traveled with her ENG 1100c students to Paris, France, in Fall 2022 as part of St. John’s Global Passport Program.
Prof. Benitez’s love of the French language and its literature motivated her to study abroad at the Sorbonne in Paris her junior year in college. While soaking in the beauty and history of France, she also discovered the fundamental difference between being a college student in the US and being one in France.
In the US, students expect their instructors to be accessible and offer guidance when they are struggling, but in France, students are very much on their own. Culture clashes like this and being apart from family can be challenging for any student, but it made Prof. Benitez more empathetic to students and people—and especially to newcomers to the US.
Having studied abroad without much support as a student, but still wanting to inspire others to go abroad, she submitted a course proposal to the Global Passport Program. Global Passport is a unique study abroad program and is only available to first-year students at St. John’s. In the program, students study with a St. John’s professor in New York City for a semester and then live and study for a week in either Rome, Italy, or Paris with that same professor.
“It allows the student to get a short but vivid taste of what it is like to study abroad,” said Prof. Benitez.
When she proposed her course, which focused on Francophone literature, she designed it so that the course content during the semester would support and culminate in the week of trips and lectures in Paris in January. Literature and architecture meshed when the students saw buildings and cafés frequented by the authors they had studied. Because African-American writers like James Baldwin and Richard Wright lived in Paris, students gained a new understanding of African-American history. They learned how interconnected seemingly separate countries can be through the links many of the authors had to Paris and France’s colonial past.
“As much as I wanted my students to learn about the literature and culture I love, my foremost goal was to help them jump fearlessly into the adventure of studying abroad, communicating in another language, and doing the unfamiliar,” she said. “I knew they would make mistakes and get lost, but I and others would be there to catch them when they fell. Finally, above all else, I hoped students would use those experiences to build empathy for everyone, including themselves, and especially for those who are marginalized for any perceived difference.”
Genie Smiddy joined St. John’s in 2014 as an instructor in the English Language Institute. She currently serves as the Coordinator of Short-Term Programs, Office of International Education. She has a B.A. in Art History and M.A. in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.