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University News

How We Aced Spring Break

Faculty-led trips took Montclair State University students to Arizona and abroad to Iceland, Austria, London

Posted in: Communication and Media, Homepage News, Science and Technology, Uncategorized

A student with headphones and a camera films a scene at the border of Mexico and Arizona.
Brandon Ehly films the scene at the border near Sasabe, Arizona. (Photo by Thomas E. Franklin)

From seeing the frigid beauty of glaciers and the Northern Lights in Iceland to visiting a harsh and sweltering migrant camp in Arizona, Montclair State University students and their professors took part in spring break trips that both challenged their expectations and left them in awe.

Short study and volunteer opportunities helped students understand divisive issues facing the United States and abroad, including immigration, affordable housing, climate change and green innovations, while also exposing them to the beauty of nature, the arts and cultures of the world.

“My biggest takeaway? How big the world is,” says Emily Cepin, a senior Earth and Environmental Science major who explored geology and sustainability in Iceland.

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in Iceland.
Emily Cepin’s photo, taken while visiting the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. “The Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is an indicator of climate change since the ice is constantly moving and melting, while the lake around it is constantly expanding from the increase in water,” Cepin explains.

“I’ve never left the country until this trip, and I was sending photos to my parents and telling them the pictures don’t do it justice. You can’t tell how big Iceland is and you can’t tell how many different cultures are involved from just a simple photo. The trip reinforced everything I’ve learned in my classes: I live on Planet Earth and Earth is crazy big and has some really cool things going on here,” Cepin says.

“Just going into a different country and driving down the road and seeing how other people live, it’s totally different from driving down the streets of Montclair, for sure,” adds Sydney Huttemann, a senior Fashion Design and Merchandising major.

A student takes a selfie photograph in front of Iceland’s Skógafoss waterfall.
Sydney Huttemann, a Fashion Design and Merchandising major, joined the geology trip to Iceland, drawn to its focus on sustainability issues. Her selfie by the Skógafoss waterfall is a favorite of the trip. “I’m happy you can see the rainbows reflecting off the water. It was so cinematic.”

Other destinations abroad were Austria and London, while in the U.S., separate groups of aspiring journalists and public servants traveled to Arizona.

“Travel experiences like this are the best form of education,” says Associate Professor Thomas E. Franklin, who accompanied School of Communication and Media students on a reporting trip to Arizona. “Not only do they learn about the world we live in and encounter lives vastly different from their own, but they also learn a great deal about themselves and their capabilities.”

Franklin assisted in this year’s “On the Road: Reporting from the Field” trip to Arizona, which was led by News Producer Steve McCarthy. Students researched and chose stories to explore, including the border wall crisis, migrant desert encampments, water crisis management, Native American culture and the legacy of Native American boarding schools, homelessness, and spring baseball.

“While this trip may seem like fun – and indeed it was, we attended a county fair, a powwow on the Gila Reservation, one of the students tried his hand as a cowboy for the day, and we made a brief stop in Sedona and at the Grand Canyon – it was also hard work as we navigated over 2,300 miles in six days, in two vans packed with gear and weary students, logging 12- to 16-hour days,” Franklin says.

A man with earphones and a camera points as other people hold lighting equipment overhead.
Steve McCarthy, news producer for the School of Communication and Media, directs students filming in Arizona. (Photo by Thomas E. Franklin)
Yazemin Yilmaz interviews National Park Service Ranger Adam Sherman overlooking the Grand Canyon.
Yazemin Yilmaz interviews National Park Service Ranger Adam Sherman at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. (Photo by Steve McCarthy)

The professors say it was inspiring to see the young journalists step out of their comfort zones and conduct themselves with professionalism and empathy. “During our visit the Border Patrol raided the camp and detained a few dozen migrants. The migrants actually gave themselves up to ask for asylum. It was quite dramatic and emotional for our students, particularly the students whose families have come into the U.S. undocumented,” McCarthy says.

The faculty-led spring break programs are among the short-term study options offered by Montclair. Throughout the year, programs in the U.S. and more than 50 countries are offered for short trips, the semester or academic year. The programs reflect a growing belief that students should learn more about the world.

“I can’t tell you how many times we were in the van and I heard students say things like this is the best thing they’ve ever done. Or they will never forget meeting this person or that person,” Franklin says. “It’s truly a life-changing experience.”

A group photo of students and professors in the desert.
Steve McCarthy and Thomas E. Franklin with Montclair’s aspiring journalists in the Arizona desert. (Photo by Thomas E. Franklin)
A group of students and professors stand with a Montclair State University pennant in front of a snowy landscape.
Professors Josh Galster and Greg Pope led the students on the trip, “Montclair in Iceland: Exploring Geology and Sustainability.” (Photo by Kaylee Seitz)

The students were taking part in “embedded courses” that combine classroom work and credits at Montclair with travel experiences – many studying abroad. “We are thrilled that so many Red Hawks are stepping up to have a high-impact learning experience before they graduate,” says Tim White, director of International Academic Initiatives. “By studying abroad, these students are honing their intercultural skills and gaining a competitive edge in their career.”

In Austria, students in the course, “The Entrepreneurial Mindset and Innovation,” gained a greater appreciation and understanding of low-carbon technologies.

“We went everywhere, from far out in the countryside to meet radically innovative farmers, to the labs of scientists using biomimicry to develop new energy systems, to the City Hall to discuss regional initiatives,” says Iain Kerr, who along with Jason Frasca, is co-director of Montclair’s MIX Lab and program leader for the Transatlantic Entrepreneurship Academy, a reciprocal exchange between Montclair and Karl Franzens University of Graz.

“Woven around these and many other visits was a complementary intensive program of study where the students developed their own radically transformative green innovations, while learning key 21st-century skills in an immersive real-world context,” Kerr says.

In London, English Department Chair Jonathan Greenberg, English Associate Professor Lee Behlman and Theatre and Dance Clinical Specialist Mysti Stay led students on the trip to London to form a deeper understanding of the city’s theater scene. The trip included backstage tours and meetings with theater leadership in community engagement, education and play development. Students learned not only how theater is made in London but also why it is made the way it is.

In Iceland, students explored volcanoes, hot springs, glaciers, renewable energy, natural hazards, and human impacts on the landscape led by Earth and Environmental Studies Professors Josh Galster and Greg Pope.

“When I was walking in Reykjavik, I looked out at a mountain, and I thought, ‘Wait a moment, is that an alluvial fan?’ I’ve seen [this geological formation] in my textbook but now I’ve seen it in person and have a better perspective on what it looks like,” says Onike Achee, a senior Earth and Environmental Science major.

A collage of photos show students working on a house in Arizona.
Montclair meets the “Collegiate Challenge” as volunteers for Habitat For Humanity Central Arizona. (Photos by Community Engagement and Partnerships)

In the U.S., alternative spring break included volunteering opportunities for Next Generation Service Corps and the Bonner Leader Program to work side-by-side with students in the NextGen Service Corp at Arizona State, painting houses, installing baseboards and doors, and using machines like saws, and nail guns in a build for Habitat For Humanity Central Arizona.

“The trip was indeed transformative and life-changing for me,” says Mariana Luna Martinez, a senior Biology major with a minor in Leadership Development through Civic Engagement. “Every day, we left with hearts full of pride and gratitude to be able to provide our service to a community many miles away.”

Students say they appreciated the range of experiences of these non-traditional spring break destinations, the lifelong friendships and connections developed.

“Iceland isn’t exactly where you picture going for spring break,” Cepin says, joking she chose something completely different from a “traditional” warm and sunny destination. “We’re wearing hats and we’re freezing. But you almost forget that you’re cold because you’re seeing something amazing in front of you – the glaciers and the mountains and the different landscape features – and making connections with people with shared interests. Our group started off as strangers, but we connected, and I can tell you, I’ll be keeping in touch with everybody for the rest of my life.”

Learn more: International Academic Initiatives,; School of Communication and Media; Community Engagement and Partnerships.

Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren.

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