Syracuse University Magazine

SU Abroad: Environmental Excursions


Through Signature Seminars, SU Abroad students can learn about the Mediterranean Sea’s marine ecology (above) and the impact of climate change on Norway (below) and other Scandinavian countries.

Photo by Michael Messina

If sitting on a small boat in the middle of Norway’s awe-inspiring Aurlandsfjord, surrounded by 6,000-foot mountains, is not the time to contemplate your responsibility for the Earth and its well-being, what are you waiting for? This question of global citizenship confronted a group of 18 Syracuse University London students in January. They were the first group from SU Abroad to embark on Sustainability and Environmental Justice in Europe, an optional three-credit Signature Seminar offered in Scandinavia prior to their abroad semester at the SU London Center. “The seminar’s focus on environmental justice and sustainability relates directly to the twin pillars of ‘people and planet’ in global citizenship and asks students to make sense of their relationships to the interconnected systems of life on Earth,” says Professor Mark Spokes, pedagogy and curriculum specialist for SU Abroad Europe, who taught the course. “We traveled where the negative impacts of global environmental crises are felt most acutely in Europe, to explore how these countries, regularly ranked as the most sustainable places in the world, are innovating and experimenting with alternative ways of life.”

Under Spokes’s guidance in the intensive 11-day course, students traveled to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, where they were asked to complete ethnographic research assignments that examined their roles as global citizens. The students visited urban planners in Stockholm, considered the effects millions of tourists are having in Flam, Norway, and discussed the role that zoos and aquariums play in the current ecological climate at the Danish national aquarium. Their final stop, well north of the Arctic Circle in Sápmi, Finland, brought them into contact with the indigenous Sámi people to learn more about how climate change disproportionately affects the land that their way of life is connected to.

“I learned much more from going out and exploring the places we went to than I ever could have learned from a textbook,” says Melissa Cubit ’18, a public relations and information management and technology dual major. “Talking to locals to hear their perspectives on sustainability and environmental justice inspired me to think about what I could do to improve my own environment. The course was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Sustainability and Environmental Justice joins other new SU Abroad courses and initiatives that emphasize experiential learning and global awareness. For example, Marine Ecology of the Mediterranean Sea and North Africa, offered for the first time in fall 2016, gave SU Madrid students the opportunity to study the physiology, behavior, and ecology of marine and coastal organisms and to earn their diving certification off of the coasts of Spain and Morocco. The sustainability of the Mediterranean’s biological diversity was a key takeaway: Students learned how ancient and modern civilizations have shaped and “humanized” the environment surrounding the sea.

These seminars—focused, intense, and rewarding—are a distinguishing feature of SU Abroad. “Signature Seminars introduce students to a region of the world through the study of an important issue, from democratization and human rights to sustainability, from ecosystems to post-conflict societies,” says Margaret Himley, associate provost for international education and engagement. “They position students as global learners, able to understand specific contexts and to draw comparisons and contrasts. They are also a great way to learn—talking with experts, visiting key sites, sharing ideas with the faculty leading them.”

Spokes underlines the point. The experiential learning that happens abroad “occurs throughout the semester, whether [students] are aware of it or not,” Spokes says. “A trip out on to the Norwegian fjords, for example, brings students in direct contact with the environmental impact of our ways of life and encourages them to ask questions of themselves about what steps they can take together to co-create a better world.” 

—Jennifer Horvath



Photo by Mark Spokes