Students extend classroom work around the world during spring break

March 03, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — While some students are spending spring break on a beach, nearly 60 Penn State College of Communications students from four different majors will be continuing their studies overseas in four different countries.

As part of “embedded courses” in the college, the students and faculty members have been preparing for the trips since the start of the semester. Journalism students in the international reporting course taught by Tony Barbieri, the Foster Professor of Writing and Editing, will head to Greece. At the same time, a group of students will head to Cuba with Associate Professor Matt Jackson as part of a new international telecommunications course. In addition, media studies students studying world media systems with Associate Professor Michael Elavsky will travel to the Czech Republic and Associate Professor Richie Sherman’s advanced documentary production abroad film-video class will make a trip to Iceland.

The international experience gained through an embedded course — when the travel happens in the midst of a normal semester — represents a cornerstone for the educational approach of the college. Each of the majors in the college has, or is developing, a similar course to provide students important international experiences.

Jackson is taking 13 undergraduates to Havana to learn more about Cuban media and telecommunications, marking the second time in the 2015-16 academic year that Penn State students have visited Cuba. Students in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism covered Penn State baseball’s historic trip to the island in November.

The telecommunications students have been studying how Cuba’s unique political history and its tense relationship with the United States have shaped media and Internet development in that country. While in Cuba, the class will tour the Cuban Broadcasting Center, speak with representatives from the Ministry of Information, learn how Cubans find creative ways to obtain information, and meet University of Havana students who are also studying communications. 

After returning, the students will develop proposals for how Cuba can increase Internet access and use communications technologies to enhance economic development.

“This is such a unique time to be traveling to Cuba. We are in the midst of a significant thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba, but travel and commerce between the two countries is still severely limited,” Jackson said. “We obtained a special educational visa so the students could travel to a country that is still mostly closed to American visitors.

“Students will encounter a society where cell phones and Internet access are extremely scarce and the media is heavily regulated — the opposite of what they are used to in the United States.”

The students will also be accompanied on the trip by Maria Cabrera-Baukus, senior lecturer, and Jenna Grzeslo, graduate assistant. 

President Obama will be traveling to Havana just 10 days after the Penn State students, becoming the first U.S. president to visit Cuba in 88 years.

Czech Republic
In the course’s fifth and largest spring trip, 15 students will visit cultural sites, multiple media outlets and learn about media systems in the Czech Republic.

Media sites they are set to visit include a Czech advertising firm, a 24-hour news TV station, Google, Radio Free Europe and an alternative media outlet for the Roma (gypsy) population.

Highlights of the trip include traveling to Prague, meeting the U.S. ambassador, taking classes with Czech students at Masaryk University and a dinner/mixer in a Cold War bomb shelter. The group will also visit Ostrava and explore how a city rebrands itself locally and globally through media.

“The design of this trip’s itinerary is deliberately broad in scope and intensive, so as to expose the students to the most-holistically immersive engagement with Czech people, culture and media possible across 10 days, moving it well-beyond the usual tourist experience,” said Elavsky, an associate professor in the Department of Media Studies. He and the students will be joined on the trip by teaching assistant and doctoral student Azeta Hatef.

Barbieri will be accompanied by 18 students and three faculty members: Steve Kraycik, director of student television and online operations; Cynthia Simmons, senior lecturer; and Boaz Dvir, senior lecturer. The group will be producing stories and reporting on the refugee crisis from Athens and Lesbos, as well as reporting from Athens on the economic crisis.

This journalism course travels abroad every spring break, giving students practical experience at news reporting in a foreign country. Typically, students produce a TV special upon returning from the trip, previously winning awards for the work. The content can also be found on online.

“This trip to Greece gives our students a chance to participate in the news coverage of a major international news event alongside reporters from all over the world,” said Barbieri. “In class we have watched video footage of refugees arriving in rafts and small boats, desperate to reach the shores of Greece. Next week, they will be standing on those same shores witnessing it themselves, taking their own footage and helping to tell the story of one of the great refugee migrations of the past 100 years.”

In previous years, Barbieri, who spent 34 years with the Baltimore Sun, including stints as an international correspondent based in Moscow and Tokyo, guided trips to Cuba, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Shanghai, South Africa and other locations.

As part of the advanced documentary film course, a select group of 12 film-video students will travel to Iceland to produce short documentary films.

Prior to travel, the class explores the history, conventions and modes that surround the documentary film form. In addition, the students spend time researching interesting and diverse individuals or topics to feature in their films. Once they’ve found a topic, they also complete pitches, treatments and visual style analyses.

A few of the films plan to spotlight social issues that might contrast to the social norms in the states. Examples include: a film about the Icelandic police force and their first and only police shooting; the closing of the Icelandic McDonald’s in 2009, which left a solitary burger that remains on display in a hotel; the cultural affinity toward elves; and why the people of Iceland don’t do a double take when they see an unsupervised child sleeping outside in a stroller.

Upon returning from the trip, the students will review their footage and edit their films with hopes to have their films premiere at the Blue & White Film Festival on April 24 at The State Theatre in downtown State College.

“The travel abroad component of this class is such an exciting, life-changing experience for the students,” said Sherman, who has completed 10 films as a director, including two feature documentaries. “They are at a prime time in their lives to visit a foreign culture and become more empathetic toward those who are different from themselves, which in turn helps them to look at their own culture with new eyes.”

They will be joined on the trip by Maura Shea, senior lecturer and associate head of the Department of Film-Video and Media Studies, and Anita Gabrosek, lecturer. 

Last Updated March 14, 2016