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Experiential Learning of Things Past

By Annette Finley-Croswhite

I have been taking students to France and Poland to study the Holocaust since 2013. To date, 67 students have made the journey with me to travel not just to other countries but also deep into the past. You might wonder how students experience a past that is over. Partially this is done by meeting with Holocaust survivors who in recounting their stories make our ODU students witnesses to genocide. Walking historical ground — those sites where horrible things happened — connects students not just with geographical realities but also with a physical sense of the past. Traveling deep into a forest to find a camp or killing site exposes students to how Holocaust atrocity was disguised and hidden. Setting a pace that is physically exhausting, often walking 10 or even 20 miles a day, gives students a visceral sense of human pain, especially when, as on the 2013 trip, the temperatures were below zero and the ground was covered in snow. While I would never purport to recreate conditions that victims experienced, and acknowledge that to do so would undermine victim suffering, there is a sensory reality to global education that cannot be reproduced in a regular classroom. Study abroad thus offers liminal spaces where students discover both past and present and where they can better visualize the power relations that dominate landscapes, both historically and today.

Assessments of study abroad most often emphasize the positive ways it affects student learning. I often contemplate how students traveling abroad can also influence the people they encounter. In 2019 my students and I were parked by the side of a road in rural Poland and about to go deep into a forest to a Holocaust killing site. We were examining a small monument that an American family had erected to indicate that their relatives had been murdered nearby during the Holocaust. As we walked away from the marker, a car slowly approached, stopped, and a young man got out. A few moments later, he drove up behind us and asked to speak with me. Through our interpreter he explained that he passed that monument every day and knew what it represented but had never stopped to look at it. He said that the sight of us gave him the profound sense that God wanted him to acknowledge the horror that had happened in the area and pray for the victims. He was an athletic man, strongly built, and he had tears in his eyes. He thanked the class for helping him to confront the history of his region. I will always remember how just our presence led this man to engage history.

The experiential learning of things past also has an impact on students' experience of today. On the 2019 trip we worked with Yahad-in-Unum, an organization that researches the Holocaust and underscores how easily ideology can deceive minds and dull or destroy ethical responses to social injustices. My goal on any study abroad is to engage students' awareness of their role as ethical beings and embrace the idea that all individuals have the power to resist ethical wrongdoing. Experiential learning of a genocidal past can thus awaken in students deep reflection on the human experience and an understanding of their own power to influence the present. I am also excited to learn from my colleagues at the Center for Global Engagement how these experiences might be adapted to the virtual environment. I hope the visceral learning that occurs on my study abroad trips will provide many future moments of conscious reflection as those Proust-like remembrances of all things past resurface again and again, marking students for a lifetime with the power of global education.

Annette Finley-Croswhite, Ph.D., is a professor of history at ODU and director of the Center for Faculty Development.

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