Cuba and Russia trips enhance geography courses
February 24, 2004
No sooner is geography professor Joseph L. Scarpaci back on campus after leading the largest faculty-led study abroad course in the history of Virginia Tech last month than he is already planning another class tour. He took a record-breaking 112 students to Cuba for his urban design and planning class (Geography 4984) and will offer the class again from May 23 to June 7.
Some of the students included professionals and adults from such places as the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia and the American Geographic Society. Scarpaci says that the group, which traveled around Cuba in four large tour buses, visited Trinidad, Cuba's best example of colonial architecture left intact; Santiago, the island's second largest city; Baracoa, the site of Columbus' landing; and of course, Havana, the capital city.
Eighteen lectures and six field trips later, students had more than a passing knowledge of Cuba's unique urban, historical, architectural, and cultural landscape. "This was a good time in history to visit Cuba," Scarpaci explains. "The country is at an interesting crossroads, politically and economically. Last spring 70 dissidents were arrested and incarcerated. Any of my students will say, 'You are never the same after you have visited this struggling nation.'
"Travel abroad not only enhances urban geography classes for the students, but it also provides me opportunity to actively engage in teaching and research beyond the classroom," continues the Cuba expert. "And it is a contribution to public service."
Tom Hammett, director of international studies for the College of Natural Resources and associate professor of wood science and forest products, will assist Scarpaci on his May study-abroad course, along with geography instructor John Boyer. That particular itinerary leaves from and returns to Miami, Florida, and includes visits to Havana, Trinidad, Santa Clara, and Veradero. Daily activities will consist of lectures and field trips to museums, landmarks, and universities.
This trip -- the longest-running Cuba study abroad from a U.S. university -- is open to any undergraduate or graduate student, professional journalist, or researcher interested in urbanization, planning, social sciences, literature, architecture, or community development in Cuba. For further information, contact Scarpaci at firstname.lastname@example.org.
While Scarpaci's students were "being transformed by the Cuba experience," Boyer, who teaches the popular world regions geography course to more than 500 students each semester, was helping lead 27 students on an extension of that class to Russia, Estonia, and Finland in northeastern Europe.
In that study abroad trip students saw the impact of the decline of the Soviet Empire and learned about the East-West divide that exists in Russian culture. "Moscow is the culture core of Russia, but a very non-Western city," explains Boyer, "unlike St. Petersburg, which is Western in focus and looks like Western Europe. Moscow and St. Petersburg, where market capitalism and democracy are still in early transition stages, gave students a good comparison with fully developed Helsinki, Finland (only 50 miles away by ferry), and Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, which we also visited."
Boyer notes that Estonia, which had been forcibly absorbed into the Soviet sphere during WWII and only regained its independence a decade ago, falls between St. Petersburg and Helsinki in its development, but has avidly embraced both market capitalism and democracy. His students observed the contrast between the old Soviet style of bleak factories and apartment complexes with the nicer look of the post-industrial buildings and the very "European" architecture that is a product of its Germanic influences of the past.
"Perhaps the most impressive place we toured was a state-of-the-art brewery in the industrial district just north of St. Petersburg, Russia," adds Boyer. "Baltika Brewery was a world-class facility, even surpassing most Budweiser plants in terms of sophistication and volume. It had a warehousing room filled with beer that was larger than the space from Major Williams to Cheatham Hall across Virginia Tech's drillfield. Only a handful of employees were needed to run this huge, technologically-advanced operation. The exponential growth of this beer producer has occurred exclusively since the fall of communism in the early 1990s."
Geography Department Head Larry Grossman says his faculty offer study abroad opportunities to students for several reasons. "They facilitate an understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity," he explains. "They also make students aware of the complex interconnections between their own lives and the daily experiences of people in other places.
"Moreover, study abroad activities help students think about problems from local, national, and international perspectives. Lastly, students gain a greater appreciation of the cultural, political, economic, and environmental issues associated with the process of globalization."
And that is essentially what students do come back with. In their written evaluations to Grossman concerning the Cuba program, students widely praised Scarpaci's instructional abilities with such comments as: "Professor Scarpaci is articulate, highly intelligent, and dedicated to the study of Cuba and its people. He is a stellar teacher"; "Professor Scarpaci clearly knows his subject area well, but more importantly, imparts his passion for Cuban Studies to his students. Virginia Tech is lucky to have him"; and "The depth of both his cultural and physical geography knowledge was impressive. Dr. Scarpaci is an extraordinary resource to the university."