It was Aliyana Thomas’ first time to travel out of the United States – and without her family. The English and Creative Writing major was among 11 Montclair State University students who spent three weeks in Dundee, Scotland, as part of an international student collaboration and exchange.
Montclair and University of Dundee students from across various disciplines, including media, dance, theater, exercise science and English, teamed up to write, perform and produce art and multimedia projects about their international educational adventures this summer.
“It was a really fun experience,” Thomas says. “We learned how to put what we learned back at Montclair into what we were doing in Scotland, which was making creative projects. I’ve never done anything like that before. So, it was actually really fun.”
The cross-cultural collaboration had been in the works for years but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the brainchild of Montclair professor David Strobbe, who met Dundee professor Mary Modeen at a conference held on campus a few years ago, and later worked on the collaborative effort with her. Strobbe, who teaches Creative Thinking at Montclair and is also the production manager at Julliard, and professors Phoebe Farber from Theater and Dance and Thomas Franklin from the School of Communication and Media accompanied the students on the trip.
“We all believe very strongly that traveling is one of the greatest forms of education that there is,” Franklin says. “The experiences that the students had – the conversations, the friendships, the collaboration of creative ideas – all of that was so rich. You could literally see the students’ worlds expanding just by taking part in this exchange.”
The Wandering Wonders performance by Montclair students Alana Conti, Marlene Fernandez, Grace Pula, Amber Ruffin, Aliyana Thomas and Shaena Smith included spoken word, poetry, song, interpretative dance and audio-visuals.
Before the trip to Dundee, the Montclair and Dundee students took two classes in New Jersey: Creative Thinking and Special Topics in Communication and Media: International Media Project. Strobbe and Farber taught Creative Thinking, which Farber said lent itself perfectly to the travel experience. “You can use an adventure that you’re on and apply creative-thinking concepts to what you’re experiencing in the moment. So, we used this adventure that both cohorts of students were on to think creatively, to use the creative-thinking concepts such as: What happens when you’re thrown into a new experience? Do you get defensive? Do you get fearful? What happens psychologically? All of that is within the creative thinking curriculum.”
Strobbe says: “The point of the Creative Thinking [course] is to show that it goes across all genres and all media. We wanted them to create their own content and tell their own story about their experiences, their perspectives with traveling. Creative thinking is all about tuning into your environment and then using the multimedia, plus performance aspects, in telling that story.”
Franklin taught the students the more technical aspects of video storytelling, as their projects included a script, photographs, video, sound, music and more. The 24 Dundee students, along with their professor, spent four weeks at Montclair in June. The Dundee and Montclair students collaborated on short films, including Beauty of Our Dreams and To Live is to Dream, which Franklin described as “very creative, artsy and free-form.” The Dundee group also visited the Jersey Shore and Manhattan with their Montclair student hosts.
The Scotland trip was especially appealing and meaningful for Ashleigh Corby, a junior Journalism and Digital Media major and Business minor from Hazlet, who is of Scottish descent, a heritage that links her to Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace, who was immortalized in the movie Braveheart.
“When we toured Dunnottar Castle, I learned about the history of warlord William Wallace,” Corby says. “I am part of the Wallace Clan, and it was really interesting to see a place he once lived.” [Wallace besieged Dunnottar Castle in the Scottish rebellion against the English.]
“The highlight for me was exploring Edinburgh on a weekend with the people I met on the trip, getting to see the Edinburgh Castle, Victoria Street and listening to the music and people in the streets really helped me connect with the culture in Scotland,” says Corby.
Exercise Science major Tanner Rivera had set a goal to take advantage of study abroad. “I made it happen,” she says, explaining how she paid her own way, saving her earnings from her part-time job at Trader Joe’s in Clifton for the trip.
Rivera fell in love with Scotland, particularly the Scottish countryside. “Seeing sheep, cows and occasionally chickens was the coolest thing ever,” she says. “I know some people in my group are from South Jersey, and they see that all the time, but I’ve lived in North Jersey my whole life, and I’ve never seen cows while just driving.” While there, she even got a tattoo of a long-haired Highland cow on her ankle as a treasured and permanent reminder of her Scotland adventure.
The Montclair students’ July trip culminated with artistic performances at the University of Dundee, where they reunited with their Dundee counterparts. The fourth largest city in Scotland, Dundee is on the North Coast, which provided the students the opportunity to visit castles and fishing villages. The students also shared photos and videos on Instagram.
The Simplicity performance by Montclair students Liz Bracer-Berrie, Ashleigh Corby, Emma Caughlan, Kaitlyn Purification, Tanner Rivera and Sean DeFlora from the University of Tampa.
The experience was also rewarding for the Montclair faculty. “It was something that was not typical for me as a professor,” says Franklin. “The creative part, the performance art was a little bit outside of my wheelhouse, so it was really challenging and exciting.”
Franklin says he also was mindful of how COVID impacted students’ lives the previous two years: “It really hindered their ability to do things like these outside-the-box opportunities for experiential learning. These students were thirsty for this type of experience. We were really happy to be able to provide this opportunity for them.”
The most gratifying part of the trip for Strobbe was twofold: “Seeing the finished product and seeing the students take pride in their finished product and the sense of accomplishment that they had from that,” he says. “And then the networking interaction they had not only within their own group but also with the students and people of Dundee. There were at least two Montclair students who had never been outside the United States, so getting them to experience that was really cool.”
For Thomas, who came up with the idea for her team’s project, the outcome also was satisfying. “It was really nice how everyone contributed poems about their experiences in Scotland,” she says of the project titledWandering Wonders, which includes spoken word, poetry, song, interpretative dance and photography.
The Montclair faculty plan to offer the Scotland exchange program again next summer. They are hoping to secure grants or scholarships to provide students who may not be able to afford travel expenses the opportunity to also participate in the program.
“That’s the whole idea, exposing as many students as possible to this kind of adventure,” says Farber, “because it was just absolutely eye-opening for the students. It changed their sense of themselves, their sense of their future. It just opened them in a profound way.”
Thomas says she enjoyed her international travel experience. “I did not want to leave Scotland when it was time to leave. Everything in Scotland felt freer and livelier. It’s a beautiful country,” she says. “I was kind of sad when I came back. For a couple of days, I was like, I can’t believe I was just in Scotland. That doesn’t seem like something that just happened.”
As a result of their experience, all three students plan to continue to travel.
“If you just have a taste of that [international travel], you just don’t want to stay stagnant in America, you just want to go,” Thomas says. “My dream place to go is Paris. I just really want to continue traveling.”
Corby agrees. “I even plan on traveling more throughout the United States. There is so much I haven’t experienced, and it’ll only make me a more well-rounded and adventurous person if I travel more.”
Rivera says she has no doubt she will return to Scotland in the future, and she’s added Rome and Paris to her list of places to visit. She encourages other students Study Abroad. “If an opportunity like this comes up – even if you think you can’t do it – just keep trying and do it because you may never get the chance again,” Rivera says.
For now, the Montclair students will do as Rivera states at the end of the Simplicity performance: “I will take a piece of Scotland in my heart to share with the rest of the world.”