Staffing shortage ends program in Madrid

AJ Naddaff

Staff Writer

The office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs has decided to end the “Davidson in Madrid” program, according to Dr. Chris Alexander, head of Dean Rusk International Studies Program.

The program was founded by Professors Patricio Boyer, Melissa González, Kyra Kietrys, Samuel Sánchez y Sánchez, Lola Santamaría, and Mary Vásquez, in the Hispanic Studies Department. The group began work in 2011 at the suggestion of Dr. Chris Alexander and Dr. Clark Ross, then Dean of Faculty.

The program took two and a half years of research and preparation to hit the ground running. Kietrys, an integral member of the program’s inception and maintenance, led the first group of students in Spring 2014. While rooted in Hispanic Studies, the program was conceived and has been sustained as a College program with the “hope that students and faculty from across the curriculum would participate in this cross-cultural immersion experience,” explained Kietrys.

Uniquely tailored to meet the diverse needs and desires of students, the program provided a flexible structure. This organization allowed students to be as independent as they liked, while simultaneously fostering a connection with the Davidson community. But not until very recently had the program’s administration realized that there were questions about their ability to staff the program beyond its current year.

As a result, the program will close its final chapter after this semester, drawing a curtain on a trip that has impacted the lives of many student participants. This past fall, 11 students under the leadership of González embarked on the program. The small program was “a prime example of the ways that faculty and staff at small liberal arts colleges can create and sustain small-scale educational experiences that provide individualized support to students as they take on new challenges, fostering close faculty-student interactions and reciprocal learning,” González remarked.

Currently, Dr. John Wertheimer, Professor of History, is leading four students for the program’s fifth and final semester. All past and current participants received the news in an email this January. The reason behind the closing of the program is straight-forward: there was not a plan for the staffing of the program that seemed sustainable to all of the people that needed to be involved in the decision. “Administratively, it really was about a staffing challenge,” Alexander explained.

With over 150 approved study abroad programs yielding at least a 65 percent student participation rate, Davidson’s commitment to global education is apparent. Yet, this does not undermine the difficulties that can come with studying abroad. Kietrys, describing a common frustration, sadi, “Far too often, students return from abroad and ache to remember their time off campus with someone who understands them.” However, Davidson-sponsored programs are different. “No matter what path the students forge on the program, they ultimately have something in common with Davidson peers when they return to campus.”

Such was the case with the Madrid program, which even gave students the opportunity to take classes taught by their Davidson professors who accompanied them. For example, Elizabeth Helzberg ’18, Political Science major and Hispanic Studies minor, embarked on the program in the fall and took a class on Spanish film with Professor González. The program is unique for many reasons, including the closeness that develops between faculty and students.

“The many conversations I had with students during meals, on bus rides, and in museums, monuments, and hotel lobbies during two semesters in Madrid were many small things that added up to something much greater than what we did in the classroom,” González said. “I got to know and understand my students abroad in ways that are simply not possible on campus.” In addition, the program allowed students to travel around a country rich with Mediterranean influence and unique cultural traditions. Including orientation week, weekend trips, and even day trips, Helzberg’s group traveled to Bilbao, San Sebastián, Segovia, Aranjuez, Córdoba, Sevilla and Granada.

“Overall, I enjoyed my experience. The program gave me the opportunity to explore different parts of the world and expand my horizons while improving my Spanish at the same time. I enjoyed being able to visit almost every region in Spain,” Helzberg said.

Isabel Ballester ’18 originally applied for the fall 2015 semester but “fell in love with the city” upon arrival and decided to stay t h r o u g h o u t the Spring semester as well. Given the positive impact of the program, it is no surprise that its cancellation garnered a negative reaction from both faculty and students involved.

“I think the overall student reaction is frustrated. I won’t speak for my peers, but I know that I am upset for sure,” Ballester commented.

The Hispanic Studies department and various faculty have voiced similar exasperation about the decision. Some even questioned why the program was not put on hiatus instead of being terminated.

“Former participants from departments across campus have approached my colleagues and me to express their dismay over the administration’s decision. Some of them even wrote letters to the President and the Deans,” Kietrys said. “I was touched by this confirmation that program had such a profound impact on the students that they were moved to action. I’m proud that the students took the initiative to voice their opinions.”

On how the administration and department handled the announcement, there is mixed student opinion. One student, who chose to remain anonymous, said the explanation was vague. Dr. Kietrys sent an email to students who have participated, citing “extenuating circumstances” behind the program’s cancellation.

Ballester, on the other hand, believes “the department did [the] best they could to communicate with the students about the transition.”

She recognizes the difficulty of announcing such an ostensibly unforeseen decision and the tireless behindthe-scenes effort put into attempts to preserve the program. “They obviously didn’t want to scare us, considering that we were already almost a week into the program. Professors like Dr. Kietrys really put up a fight and did a lot of behind the scenes work that was not asked of her. ”

Alexander further commented about how difficult the decision was, knowing “all the fine people who invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, and dedication to this project,” he said. When asked about other opportunities to study in Spain, he mentioned the Cadiz trip, though he understands that spending several weeks in the summer is not the same experience as spending a semester or a full year in Madrid. Nevertheless, this option is available for students interested, and the study abroad staff is very skilled in helping students find non-Davidson Spain programs, he explained.

The fight for a different structured Davidson in Madrid program is not completely over, though the decision to terminate the current program after this semester is definite. The International Education Committee would be willing to look at a proposal in the future for a version of a program in Madrid that did not face staffing issues. Meanwhile, Kietrys is cautiously developing different program structures to propose to colleagues, then to administration, while acknowledging that she cannot invest the two-and-a-half year time commitment that it previously took to get the program running without receiving administrative confirmation in advance.

When asked how she feels being one one of the last people to attend the program, Ballester said, “My overall feeling is thankfulness. I really benefitted from being abroad this year, especially with Professor and the support of the program. Obviously, I’m very saddened by the fact that it’s over, but I also know that there are other ways to be abroad in Spain for future students.”