January Term: Offering Students Unique Courses at Home and Abroad

Feb. 3, 2007 -- Before the 2007 spring semester began, hundreds of U.Va. students enjoyed new academic adventures during J-Term. The two-week, three-credit, intensive program increased to 36 classes — some firsttime offerings and some brought back by popular demand. The number of study abroad sessions doubled from four to eight.

“Faculty and students have seen J-Term as a great opportunity and they’ve seized it,” said Dudley J. Doane, director of the winter program, as well as Summer Session. “We get exciting course proposals.”

Professors get the chance to create a different kind of learning experience for students and delve into a subject in new or different ways. About 450 students worked with 26 faculty members (and 14 graduate instructors) whose classes they wouldn’t necessarily take during the regular semesters, Doane said. Most of the courses, which ran from Jan. 2 through 12, have 20 or fewer students.

For those programs going abroad, the participants focused on education and culture in Ghana, environmental study in Belize and economic development in Nicaragua or in Tanzania. They also studied literature in Ireland or Germany, Renaissance art in Italy or cinema in Spain.

Some students didn’t need a passport for their off-Grounds experience but traveled to view art in New York City museums with Jill Hartz, director of the University’s museum,  to examine the modern and historic Pueblo culture in New Mexico with archaeologist Stephen Plog or to study a wildlife refuge on Poplar Island in professor Michael Gorman’s “Earth Systems Engineering Management” course.

Other students attending J-Term studied contemporary international topics on Grounds, in courses on nation-building in Iraq, post-Soviet political problems or international security.

Some took the opportunity to prepare for study abroad in “The Ethics, Protocols and Practices of International Research” with the interdisciplinary faculty team of Robert Swap, an environmental scientist who founded the Southern African Regional Science Initiative, and Michael J. Smith, the Sorensen Professor of Political and Social Thought, who focuses on international relations and human rights.

Still other students grabbed the opportunity to get a seat in Larry Sabato’s popular “Virginia Government and Politics.”


Students learn about Ghana’s traditions and education system

Akwaaba!” read the sign greeting the University of Virginia students at the airport in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. It means “welcome,” and from the sounds of it, welcomed they were.

William Harvey, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, and an education professor, who created and led the January term course, “Education and Social Change in Ghana,” made sure the 18 students had many opportunities to immerse themselves in Ghanaian culture while seeing how the traditional and modern coexist in this West African country celebrating 50 years of independence.

Although more than 50 African languages and dialects are spoken there, the official language is English. Ghana, which is slightly smaller than the state of Oregon, is home to a half dozen African groups, with the Ashanti being the majority of its 20 million people.

“The students were exploring how education, both at the K-12 and higher education levels, contributes to progress in the country, and how the traditional values sometimes conflict with modern concepts,” Harvey said. “They also examined how colonial domination affects the educational, social and political development of a developing country.”

The students came face-to-face with centuries of history between Europeans and Africans, as well as visited modern Western universities. They toured an old fort where slaves were held before the horrendous trip across the Atlantic; they visited the cultural center named for the black American intellectual, W.E.B. DuBois, and his home there, plus his mausoleum; they met with Ghanaian college students and administrators. Over 10 days, they traveled to Accra and Cape Coast in the south, to Kumasi further inland and to Charlottesville’s sister city, Winneba.

Several of the students talked about how the trip reinforced the importance of international experience.

Fourth-year student Brittany Brown, a politics and sociology major, said she learned “the value in studying abroad, not only to acquire a global competence, but also to develop an understanding and an appreciation of diversity in our own country, in addition to other countries.

“I learned more than I ever thought I would,” she said, “and day by day, I could bargain better, make more locals laugh in disbelief of my American perspective on life, and travel around Ghana with increasing ease.”

Fourth-year student Kathleen O’Brien, a Curry School of Education major in the BA/MT program, said she is now considering teaching there after visiting some secondary schools.

“Many of the students have a great respect for education, and they work hard to pay for school on their own, even at the junior secondary level. It made me realize just how lucky Americans are to be guaranteed free education up through high school. … Now I definitely would like to focus my career interests on education in developing countries and try to spread awareness about all of the work that needs to be done, not only in developing nations, but developed nations as well.”

Janelle Todman, a fourth-year American studies and elementary education major, said she appreciated the reciprocal cultural exchange between the Americans and Ghanaians.  “I think that it is important to note that learning and growth are the result of positive discourses and nonjudgmental openness.

Everyone should make it a point to study abroad at some point in their college career. It is through maintaining lines of communication that we can gain a better perspective on each other and the world that we share.”


Children wander from one pile of rubbish to the next at a dump in Bluefields, Nicaragua The smoldering debris heap is their home, where they live in makeshift cardboard shelters and scrounge for any scraps worth a few pennies. Witnessing this and other scenes of life in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, U.Va. students gained a new understanding of abject poverty and the challenges of life in a developing country.

The students traveled to Nicaragua for their J-Term class on “The Challenges of Development in Emerging Economies.” They had already read about the high unemployment, poverty, disease, environmental degradation and poor physical infrastructure that create hurdles for development. But experiencing it firsthand was a different type of learning.

The class visited a jungle farm and joined a family in digging up cassava roots and grinding corn with a stone to make tortillas. The farmer told one student about the trauma of witnessing innocent neighbors killed in front of him by Sandinista rebels in the late 1980s. “Our conversation forced me to contemplate the shameful consequences of the U.S. government’s foreign policy towards Nicaragua, as well as how fortunate I am to have never witnessed” a murder, recounted Hayley Soltesz in her class journal.

The students also worked in pairs, joined by two students from the local university, to come up with low-cost community development proposals. Among their proposals were a new maternity ward for the local hospital, a halfway house for new mothers and a plan to develop holistic medicine using local knowledge. Though only there about 10 days, “the students did a pretty good job of coming up with implementable projects,” said Brad Brown, associate professor of commerce,  who taught the course with co-leader Phoebe Haupt, a former assistant dean of students who has lived in Bluefields, on and off, for the past nine years.

But possibly more valuable than any proposals were the relationships that were made during the intense fortnight. “My favorite part,” said U.Va. student Laurie Paguio, “was the partnership with the [local] students. Even though we spent only a week with them, I consider the people I met in Bluefields my good friends.” She is already exploring organizing an alternative spring break trip to return to Bluefields.


Facing a growing AIDS epidemic, Tanzania spends $2 per AIDS diagnostic test out of a budget that allows only $7.50 per person per year in health care spending. U.Va. students hoped to improve that situation by developing a business plan to manufacture, in Tanzania, a low-cost HIV/AIDS test developed by Eric Houpt, a U.Va. assistant professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases who has done research in Tanzania for the past six years.

For this J-Term course on “Financing a Sustainable Future,” co-taught by Houpt and Mark White, associate professor of commerce, the students, primarily from the McIntire School of Commerce, were excited to use their developing business skills in a practical endeavor, White noted. “Doing so amidst the unique challenges of a poor developing country was even more exciting,” he added.

The students wrote a preliminary feasibility study of the proposed venture before departing for Tanzania, but once in-country they discovered a string of unforeseen challenges. The class learned that the Tanzanian government allows only two brands of AIDS tests to be sold in the country, so selling a new test, even one made in Tanzania, would require paying members of an “advisory board” to consider the issue and decide to allow the new test. Then the students discovered that the going “salary” rates in Tanzania, on which they had based their business plan, did not include customary  “honoraria” pay that roughly doubled the total wages. “As we worked on the business plan, it became clear that the big picture is always bigger than what you imagine,” said Richie Roberts, a fourth-year commerce major.

Such business considerations were not the only unusual features of Tanzania they encountered. The class visited the famous Maasai tribe and traveled through a national park where they saw, among other wildlife, lions, elephants, baboons, hippos and zebras.

These encounters led students to reevaluate their worldviews. “I have no idea how the world should work. It was easier to have goals for world progress and myself when I thought everyone should be like us,” said David Isaacs, a fourth-year in the College. “Hearing that only about half of the Maasai children survive to adulthood sounds terrible, but it didn’t seem like they saw it that way. Their way of living worked for them, and they didn’t seem any less happy than we are, and they actually seemed more content.”

The U.Va. students weren’t the only ones whose presumptions were reconsidered. The seven Tanzanian students who traveled with them upon their arrival had their own assumptions. “Most African people think that when a white man comes [to Africa], it is for exploitation,” explained Tanzanian Happy Mihanjo in her class journal. After she had spent two weeks with the U.Va. class, Mihanjo had changed her mind. “I realized that the American is not that bad and arrogant as I used to hear.” The students’ business plan research will be incorporated into a grant proposal currently being written by Houpt. If the proposal wins funding to start up a manufacturing facility, then the students will have changed more than their worldview; they will have changed the world.