Dr. Stephanie Spacciante: Soaking up Culture

Stephanie Spacciante says she launched the Summer Study Abroad program in the Department of French, Hispanic and Italian Studies with one thing in mind: that you can only do so much in the classroom.

“You can learn a language,” explains Spacciante, a lecturer in the Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies and founder of of the Summer Study Abroad Program, “but you can’t learn the culture unless you’ve lived there.”

Summer Study Abroad

Starting in May of 2006, Spacciante took 22 UBC students on a five-week trip to Havana, Cuba to soak up Spanish, Cuban literature, and culture. Then again in the spring of 2007, Spacciante led a new group of students to Santiago, Chile, where they earned six UBC credits at Universidad Católica while living with Chilean families. The program mixed in trips to places such as Machu Picchu in Peru and other locales, concluding with a one-week field trip to the Atacama desert, located in northern Chile. “When the students finish the study abroad program usually it just whets their appetite to go abroad the next time in an exchange program,” observes Spacciante. Eating three meals a day with host families and taking classes in Spanish-speaking universities, students learn to drop their phrase books and fast-track language learning by immersing themselves in real conversations. The contact also helps them make life-long connections with people, and a way of life.

Student Experiences

Sonia Medel and Ashley Weissberg are two UBC students who spent five weeks in Chile. “I would have loved to have had more time,” said Weissberg, a psychology student at UBC. “This was just a taster.”

Hailing from California, Weissberg says she ultimately hopes to go into nursing after graduation. Having broadened her cultural knowledge about one culture is something she says will be “a big plus” in her home state, home to millions of Spanish-speakers. But the summer program also meshed with her hopes of working internationally as a nurse. “Even now I find that I’m a very mobile person and I can adjust to different cultures and people,” she says.

Medel, a fourth-year student in Latin American Studies, already had a good grasp of Spanish before she left, but says she had other reasons for going. “My Spanish isn’t so great that I can come out writing really good essays,” says Medel, whose mother is Peruvian. She wanted to change that, and found the advanced grammar and literature options the perfect way to do that. Students in the program choose between beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels when they apply. “It was a good introduction,” Medel says. “I know that I want to go away now for grad school somewhere in Latin America.” She’ll likely return to either Peru, or Argentina in to enrol in a teacher education program.

“We take students from all faculties,” explains Spacciante, adding that plans for next summer’s destination are currently underway. “We’re looking for students who want to enhance their degree.”

How It All Began

Spacciante said her rationale for initiating the program stems from her own experience as an undergraduate in the US, when she used to hit the books every night as a Political Science and Spanish double major. “I just felt that something was lacking” she says of her mindset at the time. “It was obvious I hadn’t gone abroad.”

When a favourite prof recommended that she go south for a one-semester program in Mexico, she went, and ended up loving it so much there she stayed for two. “You’re not a tourist, you’re more of a traveller,” explains Weissberg.

“You’re getting involved in a way of life and you’re seeing what it’s like out there in the world, versus staying put.”

By Bryan Zandberg (BA, 2006, in French and Spanish). Bryan is a former editor with The Ubyssey.