Through a recent study abroad program, 18 Southern Oregon University students and one professor set out to explore and experience the richness of Northern Spain’s culture.
Communication professor Alena Ruggerio organized and led the students on a three-month study abroad excursion to Oviedo, Spain. Ruggerio says the time she spent with her 18 “tesoros” (her treasures) was truly life-changing for her.
Ruggerio teaches courses in public speaking, argumentation and critical thinking, persuasion and other courses in rhetoric. She has received multiple honors and awards, including being voted “Most Warm and Welcoming Professor” by the Associated Students of SOU, and being a recipient of the AHA International Outstanding Visiting Faculty of the Year Award.
How do you believe study abroad experiences benefit students?
I think it’s one of the most important experiences that a student could have. Let’s start with how it enhances your coursework; it was amazing to be able to study something in the classroom and then be able to walk outside, and there’s the thing we’re talking about. We were watching movies in the rhetorical criticism class that were shot in Oviedo and everybody went “Oh my word! We were there! We lived there, right there!” So it brings learning alive in a way that you just can’t do while at a regular college campus.
Benefit number two, obviously, is that it helps you to be more marketable professionally. Because today you aren’t just competing against other college graduates in the United States, you’re competing against everyone across the globe. International study proves that you have an international perspective, and that you can engage in intercultural communication. The kind of person who has the courage, the tenacity and the open-mindedness to succeed in a study abroad program is the kind of person that employers want to hire. So it’s a really nice way to enhance your portfolio when you’re going out on the job market.
And then the most important, as far as I am concerned, is that study abroad makes you a different person. You are not the same person when you come home as when you left and part of it is you see the world differently. You see your own culture differently, you see your own self differently and you come back with so many more personal connections.
During this study abroad experience, what was your favorite course to teach? Why?
I refuse to choose between the two courses because they were both great, but in different ways. One course I taught was called “Asturian Environmental Persuasion.” Asturias was the name of the region in north-central Spain that we were in, and they’re famous for their wildlife preservation and national forests. So wildlife protection and eco-tourism are big deals in this area. In that class, we studied those issues, and then I brought to the students my knowledge about persuasion strategies and theories. Then each student or group of students created an original persuasion campaign for their term project, where they created original artifacts of persuasion on behalf of a client to try to help them meet their persuasion goals.
I also taught “Spain in Words and Images,” and basically, that was a Spain-themed version of my rhetorical criticism class. So I taught eight different critical lenses that they could use to analyze examples of public communication. Public communication could run the whole gamut from speeches, to stories, to poems, to songs, to advertisements and billboards, to websites, to social media posts, to architecture, to sculpture, to any kind of example of public communication. And then it was the students’ job every week ‒ and this was my favorite assignment of the entire term ‒ every week I would ask the students to go find some of those examples of public communication that had something to do with Spain and then they would present those to the class. So not only did we learn about how to analyze those examples of communication through these rhetorical criticism lenses, but we also learned a lot about Spain.
What advice do you have for a student who’s interested in studying abroad?
There are all kinds of study abroad opportunities happening all the time, and so my advice to a student would be, do some soul-searching and brainstorming to figure out: “What kind of things do I want to learn? Do I want to take language classes? Do I want to take classes in my major? Do I want to take more general-education university-studies classes? Do I want to have an internship experience? Do I want to have a homestay experience with a family? Do I want to live on a college campus in a dorm? How long do I want to be gone?”
There are study abroad opportunities that are as short as a week or two. So you could do a really short study abroad opportunity, or you could do something that’s a month or two over the summer, or you could do something that’s just a term (like what we did for three months), or you could do something for a year. So figure out how long you want to be gone and then have some idea about what part of the world you might be interested in. Think not just about the location where you will be living, but also where that location puts you in proximity to having additional explorations. And once you’ve thought a little bit about that, my advice would be to go to the Office of International Programs in the SU, and find out what your options are.
I read that you had the chance to visit cathedrals, museums and ancient places in Northern Spain. Were there any locations you weren’t able to visit that you were hoping to?
The travel writer Rick Steves has some really good wisdom about this. He says, “whenever you travel you have to travel with a mindset that someday you will be back in this place.” So that you can do the things that you didn’t get to do, and see the things that you didn’t get to see, because you can’t possibly put pressure on yourself to do and see everything, it’s impossible.
On the hill above Oviedo, on top of Monte Naranco, there’s this enormous statue called “al Sagrado Corazón de Jesús,” sacred heart of Jesus, and it looks over the city. We could see this statue from the university, we could see the statue from my apartment, and the hike up the mountain to get there is beautiful. The view down the mountain from the statue is really beautiful, so most all the students went on this hike up the mountain. I didn’t go, and I really, really wish I had. Unfortunately, I was planning to go up with two students finals week and it was raining. So I didn’t get up Monte Naranco and I really would’ve liked to have done that.
What did you personally gain from this study abroad trip?
My relationship with those 18 students means everything to me. This study abroad opportunity created an environment that is like nothing I have ever experienced teaching at a university in the States. Because it starts with the classroom interaction, and I got to have all 18 of them in both of my classes, which was wonderful because we always had a kind of everyday group meeting together. So we got to all learn the same things together, we had a common base of understanding of where we were at and what we were doing. I’m traveling with them on all of these group excursions, I’m going on all of these tours with them, I’m sitting in on their Spanish class and their Intercultural class. So between them coming to me, and me coming to them, we are each other’s world, basically, for three months.
I feel like I got to know them in a way that I never get the privilege of getting to know students at SOU. I am certain that every student at SOU is equally as special as these 18, but these are the 18 that I got to know, and the 18 that chose this program are very, very special. And so, long after we come home back to the States, they will still be my tesoros, they are still my treasures, they are still and always will be special to me. That is the most important thing I got out of this trip.
Those interested in venturing into the unknown through a study abroad program may take Ruggerio’s advice and speak to an advisor in the SOU’s Office of International Programs. There are many opportunities waiting for those interested in travel, and SOU offers various forms of support as students explore their options.
Story by SOU student writer Sophie Passerini, @SophiePasserini