Beyond the tourist trail: interns explore Catholic education in Slovakia

Author: Rina Buznea

Judy Hutchinson reflects on a four-day trip to Bardejov, Slovakia, with students participating in the London Global Gateway’s Internship Program.

1 Whole Group


As Director of Student Affairs at Notre Dame’s London Global Gateway, I have been fortunate enough to share in many amazing experiences with our students during their semesters abroad. By far, though, one of the most rewarding things I have been part of is a trip to Bardejov, Slovakia, with 13 Notre Dame Juniors on November 2-5, 2017.

Making the most of their time in London, these students are all undertaking internships at local Catholic secondary schools: St. Thomas More Language College and St. John Bosco College, which has a sister school in Bardejov. These placements combine with a weekly co-curricular class to form a three-credit course; ‘Catholic Education and the Common Good’ is taught in part by Simon Uttley, former Headmaster of St. John Bosco College in London and the driving force behind the Anglo-Slovak school partnership.

The trip to Bardejov – generously funded by Notre Dame’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies – saw these fortunate students take their study to the next level, learning about a Catholic education in a truly international sense. By engaging with students and teachers at two schools, and participating in an international conference of educators, the students gained insight into the development of Catholic education in a post-Soviet nation.

It was my privilege to join this group as they pushed the boundaries of their study abroad experience and deepened their intercultural understanding, venturing beyond the typical tourist trail of Europe.
 

Teší ma! Pleased to meet you!

I always advise students that for an authentic study abroad experience, and true understanding of a culture and community, you have to delve beneath the surface. Meet the locals and do as they do; exchange knowledge, viewpoints, even jokes. I was delighted to see our interns embody this principle as we visited two schools in Bardejov, learning and laughing together and making new friends.

At the first, a Roma school, we were warmly welcomed by eager young pupils who had prepared questions to ask our students in English: “What is your favorite animal? What is your favorite sport?” One of our interns mentioned that he liked boxing and was coerced into doing 40 push-ups, counted in English by the Roma children! Another heartwarming moment was listening to the children sing to us and our students singing back the Alma Mater – it reminded me what a credit our interns are to Notre Dame and made me very proud.

Therese Benz, Pre-Health and English major, said this was one of her favorite memories from the trip too. “Simply being able to sit and listen to the children sing, even though I did not understand the words, was so beautiful,” Therese remembered. “I was touched by the happiness on their faces and very grateful for the experience of meeting them, if only for a morning. It was not something I ever would have expected to do, but it was so wonderful.”
 

2 Roma School

At the Salesian bilingual secondary school, our interns chatted with the local students about education, their studies in England and life back home, and listened to their own experiences of life in Bardejov. Again, our boxer tried to do 40 push-ups, but came up three short! There was great energy and excitement about the meeting, which Preprofessional student Tom Meyering described as the most valuable part of his internship:

“I met students from backgrounds that are completely different from my own, and interacted with them on a level I never thought I would. Meeting kids from such different backgrounds has been a very enriching experience, and helped me to better understand cultures which were previously a mystery to me.”

Martin Smilnak (Headteacher at St. John Bosco Gymnasium in Bardejov, also a regional Member of Parliament) and Fr. Peter (a Salesian priest at the Roma School) gave our students further insight into the Roma culture and community in Bardejov, explaining some of the difficulties they face due to discrimination and extreme poverty in the district of Postarka.         

Rachel Belans, majoring in Biological Sciences, reflected: “You can learn so much more about a place when you are able to really interact with its people and see things from their perspective. Our interactions with students and teachers at these two schools really helped me to understand Slovakia and Catholic Education there. It helped me to see how universal the Catholic Church really is, and what a big impact a Catholic education makes in some places.”
 

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Educating educators

Our students also attended Bardejov’s annual Go Bilingual conference, giving a confident and polished presentation on ‘Inspirational Teaching’ to roughly 60 Catholic educators from around the world – and guest of honor, Peter Krajnak, the Deputy Minister of Education for Slovakia. Recounting their experiences of education, including working in London schools as part of their internship program, the students discussed how inspirational educators had made a life-changing impact on them.
 

6 Students Presenting At Go Bilingual‘What is inspirational teaching?’ Our students discussed at the Go Bilingual conference.

Jack Eckman, Business Analytics major, said that the chance to present at the conference was one of the most rewarding aspects of his semester abroad and something he would keep with him for the rest of his life:

“I was able to reflect on my education experience to an audience of teachers and administrators who truly cared about what I was saying. It forced me to think about myself as both a student and an educator, which is something I would not have done as an undergrad otherwise. In a lot of ways, it served as the culmination of my internship.“      

Simon Uttley, who co-founded Go Bilingual with Martin Smilnak, described the students as the “star attraction” of this year’s conference program. “Speaking without notes and from the heart,” Uttley said, “the students connected with the audience of senior educators who were both moved and deeply impressed by the quality of reflection that the Notre Dame students offered.” 

Indeed, the students received high praise from attendees, with several approaching them afterwards to ask questions and exchange contact information. Pre-Health and Sociology major Elizabeth Jakubowski said this gave way to some fascinating conversations about successes and challenges experienced by education professionals, shedding light on various teaching models and developments in the sector:   

“Seeing how other countries and schools focus and direct their curriculum, school days, and teaching styles provides a unique comparison to evaluate our own educational systems. I loved seeing the focus on learning new languages and bringing different cultures into the classroom. Learning about universal education, too, and how important it is across the world was a tremendous opportunity.”
 

8 With Deputy Minister Of EducationNotre Dame students and staff pose with the Deputy Minister of Education Peter Krajnak

Thinking outside the box 

On Saturday, with all the work done, we took a trip to the gorgeous town of Kosice and enjoyed a cultural heritage tour. Several members of the group remarked how lucky they felt to have seen this town they might never have thought to visit otherwise; I counted myself amongst them. While our students frequently spend their weekends away on travels, exploring Europe’s offerings beyond the U.K., Slovakia may not have been on their list. The trip was an opportunity for them to go further, to think outside the box, and I believe they will return to Notre Dame with a much richer and deeper intercultural competency because of the experience.

On behalf of the whole group, I must thank all faculty and staff members who supported this invaluable trip: Simon Uttley and John Lydon (who teach ‘Catholic Education and the Common Good’), Nick Brill (who manages the London Internship Program with me), and Monica Caro (Manager of Operations at the sponsoring Nanovic Institute for European Studies).

Danielle Wales, a Pre-Med student majoring in Biology, spoke for all of us: “The opportunity to inspire and be inspired, all while immersing ourselves in a distinct culture, is something I will always be grateful for.” 

*Rachel Belans, Therese Benz, Annette Cai, Keven Cheung, Jack Eckman, Elizabeth Jakubowski, Nicholas Jeffrey, Melanie Justice, Kevin Lee, Thomas Meyering, Savannah Pfeffer, Danielle Wales, Kimberly Walter


Originally published by Rina Buznea at international.nd.edu on December 06, 2017.