Like most study abroad experiences at the University of Richmond, Ellen Walk’s trip to Trinidad, Jamaica, Panama, and Cuba on the 2011 Faculty Seminar Abroad didn’t end when the plane touched down in Richmond. Instead, the seminar inspired Walk, an assistant professor of management and information systems, to look for ways to internationalize her own teaching and expose her students to the world beyond U.S. borders. Spring break of the past year found Walk back in Panama—this time with the eight students in her short-term management course, “Role of Information and Communications Technologies in Developing Countries.”

The idea for the course grew out of Walk’s own experiences in the seminar. Since its inception in 1989, the Faculty Seminar Abroad has fostered interdisciplinary faculty teaching and research in significant regions around the globe. Furthermore, Walk says, it offers “a way for faculty members to get to know a region and make contacts, and at the same time represent the University to our academic partners.”

The seminar’s benefits also extend to students, making important contributions to Richmond’s goals of internationalizing the University and increasing the number of students with study abroad experience. “I think that everybody since the [2011] trip has done something with the region,” Walk says. “Either a presentation, or hosting a faculty member from one of the countries, or, in my case, a trip.”

Walk was attracted to the short-term study abroad course model because it offers students who have been unable to study abroad the opportunity to still experience foreign travel in an academic context. Of the course’s eight students, three were seniors in their final semester, so the trip was their last chance to study abroad. Matthew Chmielewski, ’12, came to the University as a transfer student and says, “there was no way I would have been able to study abroad.”

According to Walk, Panama was a natural choice for the course. “I felt like the contacts that we made and the impact of the expansion of the Panama Canal fit into my particular course description very well,” she says. Furthermore, although Panama’s official language is Spanish, many of its residents speak English, which allowed students to improve their language proficiency without the rigors of immersion.

In designing the course, Walk turned to her experiences on the 2011 seminar. “What was beneficial about the faculty seminar was that we literally were doing a dry run of the logistical steps in running a study abroad trip,” she says. The Office of International Education (OIE) provided her with pre-trip support, including two class speakers on health, safety, and cross-cultural issues. Finally, Walk obtained funding through C. Weinstein and Bonner Center for Civic Engagement grants. “[Those funds] made the trip possible, because we were trying to keep the cost way down,” Walk says.

Although Walk duplicated certain trip activities from the faculty seminar—such as a hike through the rainforest on Barro Colorado Island and a day in historic Panama City—she also scheduled a number of innovative activities that enhanced students’ curricular learning and exposed them to diverse sides of Panamanian culture. In what Walk describes as the “highlight” of the trip—an opinion echoed by many students in the group’s trip blog—the class traveled in dugout canoes down the Chagres River to spend a day with the Emberá indigenous community.

This visit was facilitated by the group’s guide, Archie Kirchman, a Panamanian entrepreneur whom Walk met during the seminar. Walk identifies Kirchman as one of the most crucial elements of the trip’s success and credits the faculty seminar with allowing her to make such a connection. “It’s really important to have contacts that you have assessed long before the trip,” she says.

Kirchman also made a mark on the students. “He had a degree in some kind of telecommunications, but he was also an entrepreneur,” Chmielewski says. “I thought that set a really great example for us.”

The ability to see lessons learned in the classroom put into action in a real-world context had profound effects on students’ learning. The incorporation of the trip, says Walk, adds a multidisciplinary element to the class, “because it ends up being about the history, the culture, the politics, and the language.” She particularly recalls the group’s visit to the expansion zone of the Panama Canal, which, when completed, will double the capacity of the waterway. “It was like a scene from a James Bond movie,” Walk says. “All of a sudden the students understood exactly what an international supply chain is.”

Many students took those lessons back to Richmond. When Chmielewski’s strategic management course asked students to recommend strategies that would increase particular companies’ financial sustainability, he formulated a suggestion related to the Panama Canal. “Coming up with a recommendation like that would never have happened had I not gone on the trip and experienced the canal,” he says.

In April 2012, the OIE recognized Walk’s contributions with an International Education Award. Walk hopes to repeat the course in future years, perhaps for business management students, or with a trip to Cuba or Nicaragua. “When you put together a trip, it’s a lot of work,” she says. “So if it works really well you want to do it again.” As a result of a grant from the Mellon Foundation, she also will collaborate this fall with Claudia Ferman, a Spanish and film studies professor, to teach another information and communications technology seminar.

At the end of the day, the greatest benefits of such short-term study abroad courses accrue to the students themselves. “You can read all the books from all the different vantage points, but nothing beats being there and seeing for yourself,” says Isaiah Bailey, ’13. Chmielewski agrees. “Never having had the opportunity to study abroad, I was kind of limited in what I knew about the scope of the world. This experience makes me see that there’s a greater horizon beyond the United States.”