Leaving on a Jet Plane: NJCU Study Abroad Program Takes Off

The NJCU study abroad group in Cuzco. Clockwise: Cora Lagos, Daniel Miller, Danay Sierra, Nazea Ali, Anthony Moore, Marilyn Pardo, Tim White, Rosanna Rodriguez

You can only learn so much about a place from a textbook. Watching documentaries and seeing pictures will never quite compare to climbing the steps of ancient ruins, biting into authentic local food or meeting and interacting with people from other cultures.

Knowing there’s nothing like the real thing, New Jersey City University (NJCU) professor Tim White, who specializes in modern American and urban history, spearheaded a new program at the school that makes study abroad programs more accessible to students from different economic backgrounds.

White, 36, came up with the idea for the Historic Cities Study Abroad Program in the spring of 2011. While NJCU had some study abroad programs in the past, none of the recent trips involved history, he says.

The Paulus Hook resident is a strong supporter of immersion learning. In addition to moonlighting as an actor and singer, White leads school and business groups on historic walking tours through places like Downtown Jersey City, Chinatown, Central Park, Harlem, Times Square and the Brooklyn Heights. (He says he started working as a tour guide while working on his Ph.D in history at Columbia University, where he graduated in 2007.)

White says he envisioned a donor-driven program that could help students of various socioeconomic statuses get extended tours in historic cities around the world. “If a student has a lot of money, there are lots of trips that student can go on. This is designed especially to be accessible to different economic levels,” he says.

White needed to get the support of his department and school administration. University president Sue Henderson, he says, was a big factor in getting the ball rolling.

“She’s a dynamo,” he says. “She helped by working with the school’s Office of International Programs and encouraging our faculty to work with them. She’s a great matchmaker and (believes) students should have the opportunity to travel.”

White says Henderson wanted to continue former president Carlos Hernandez’s push for study abroad, which culminated in a student exchange/study abroad program with pupils from India from 2011-2012. The immersion trip–which was led by English professor Irma Maini, Robert Quinones of Student Affairs and Craig Katz, the Director of International Programs–allowed Indian students to visit NJCU in the summer of 2011 before sending NJCU students to India in January 2012.

NJCU student Nazea Ali in Cusco

“When they pulled off the India trip, the students were really impressed and excited,” says White.

The success of the trip emboldened the school to launch the Historic Cities program with a trip to Cusco, Peru, last June. White and the history department chose Cusco because it would give them a chance to tie Incan urban planning into their curriculum and teach students about city building. After nailing down their academic plans, White took a scouting trip to Peru using a small grant.

“I saw ruins, museums, I walked with local guides and even visited the hotel we’d be staying in,” says White, who was blown away by the beauty of the Peruvian countryside and awe-struck by massive, expertly built Incan cities.

Eager to share the experience with his students, White contacted potential donors and also chipped in $1,000 himself to the project. The program organizers raised $6,036 more in donations and reduced the cost of the trip to $1,850 per student versus the up to $6,000 that students at most other universities in the country had to pay to study abroad in Peru, White says.

Six students stayed for 10 days in Peru with White (who speaks some Spanish) and modern language professor Cora Lagos (who speaks a lot, as you might guess) visiting ruins and sites like Sacsayhuamán, Tambomachay, Puca Pucara, Pikillacta, Ollantaytambo, Písac, and of course, Machu Picchu.

“It was such a joy to see their eyes light up and jaws drop,” says White, adding that the ruins are truly architectural marvels. “Some of the Incas’ stone structures have survived earthquakes that toppled modern buildings and some sections of them were built with no mortar because they were so expertly carved, they just used keystones and notches.”

While White had already seen most of the sites on his scouting trip, he had not seen Tipón, an Incan structure he calls “a wonder of irrigation and agriculture.”

“Tipon is an irrigation and draining system that is still working, draining and cascading to this day…it was really beautiful,” he says. “I saw it with fresh eyes and I was really impressed.”

The students were awe-struck after being introduced to a whole new world. In a video taken in Cusco documenting the trip, one pupil, Daniel Miller, said, “This trip was beyond description…and this beats textbook learning by 1000 percent.”

The students visit the city of Cusco

Another student, Danay Sierra, agreed. “This has been an amazing, breathtaking opportunity,” she said. “We’ve read (about Cusco) and we’ve seen pictures, documentaries on TV, but this? Words cannot explain.”

After the success of the Cusco trip, NJCU greenlighted another 10-day trip, but this time to Spain, over winter break in January. During the trip, students visited Madrid, Barcelona and Toledo. White says they hope to one day make a return trip to Spain, this time visiting some of its southern regions.

It’s also inspired other professors at the school to travel with their students. For instance, sociology professor Max Herman and media arts professor Vera Dika took students to Rome for spring break to study the sociology of Rome and Italian cinema. While the trip was sponsored by Historic Cities, White says, it was not officially part of the program.

The next official Historic Cities trip will take students to Istanbul this summer. The excursion, White says, matches fellow history professor John Bragg’s course on Middle Eastern history and culture and one of White’s own classes centered around New York City, which like the Turkish city is what he calls a “geostrategic port city and a gateway to other regions and cultural zones.” During the trip, White will also give lectures on urban planning at a conference in Istanbul.

“In Istanbul, we want the students to interpret the city’s iconic sites as symbols of imperial power from a bygone age and analyze Istanbul’s long-standing prominence as a trade emporium and cultural destination,” he says.

Eventually, White hopes the program becomes even more interdisciplinary and that students can stay in these historic cities for as long as three weeks. Other possible destinations for the Historic Cities program include Fez, Morocco; Marrakech, Seville, Cordoba, Paris, Shanghai and Beijing, says White.

“The faculty leaders want to continue making study abroad possible for a wide mix of students from all kinds of backgrounds,” he says. “We want to continue immersing students in the history of some of the most iconic cities in the world.”

For more information on the program, email Tim White at twhite1[at]njcu.edu. To donate to the program, visit the NJCU website, select the donation category “Other,” and enter “Historic Cities Study Abroad” in the text box provided.

You can also write check donations made out to “New Jersey City University Foundation” with “Historic Cities Study Abroad Program” on the memo line. These can be mailed to New Jersey City University Foundation, Attn: Lori Summers/Historic Cities Study Abroad Program, Hepburn Hall – Room 315, 2039 Kennedy Blvd., Jersey City, NJ, 07305-1597.

Check out pictures from the Historic Cities Study Abroad Program trip to Peru:

Photos courtesy of Tim White

Summer Dawn Hortillosa

is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey City Independent, The Jersey Journal, the International and other publications. She is also a creative writer and theatrical director.