‘The World is Our Classroom’

Alessia Mattioli

Alessia Mattioli, Health and Healing in Guatemala: “I conquered fears, touched more lives than I could have hoped for, and my own life was changed in so many positive ways … A part of me will always be in Guatemala with those families.”

By Sam Starnes

Alessia Mattioli had given up on her high school dreams of studying abroad.

A 24-year-old single mother earning a nursing degree while caring for a special-needs child and working at a hospital, she had almost no free time. But in her final year at Rutgers University–Camden, she received an email about a class called Health and Healing in Guatemala. The engaged civic-learning course would take place over spring break. It revived her dream. “I told myself, ‘It’s 10 days. I can do 10 days.’”

Mattioli’s parents supported her idea to go on the trip and would care for her son. She arranged for the time off from work and dove headlong into the reading assignments and class meetings prior to the trip.

She was glad she did. Her experience in a jungle mountain village—conducting health screenings, training midwives on contraception methods, educating residents on diet, and building vented stoves for families to help them avoid smoke inhalation while cooking—resonated deeply. “I conquered fears, touched more lives than I could have hoped for, and my own life was changed in so many positive ways,” said Mattioli, a Glassboro, New Jersey, resident who earned her bachelor’s degree two months after the 2017 trip and now works as a nurse at Cooper University Hospital.

Mattioli and the other 15 students in the course connected with the Mayan villagers who lived with limited electricity and running water. On their final day, the residents held a closing ceremony in the students’ honor. “All of the women dressed us in their garments,” she said. “They also wrapped our hair, but they had run out of hair wraps. Without even thinking about it, they unwrapped their hair and then wrapped our hair with that same wrap they just removed. It was wonderful to make that connection with their culture.”

As the students and villagers hugged and said goodbyes, billowing white clouds descended into the mountains, encasing them all in a soft, white fog—a phenomenon the villagers call neblina. It’s a moment Mattioli will never forget. “A part of me will always be in Guatemala with those families,” she said.


Alexis Weaver, Journalism in India and Community Service in South Africa. Weaver, who earned an English degree in May, traveled to India for a journalism course and to South Africa for a civic engagement course. Although she said the trips were fun, including the time pictured when she took over from a tricycle driver in Dehli, India (Weaver is at left, and Jasmine Barber CCAS’17 is at right), she said she “really enjoyed the advance educational components. I learned so much and I felt so prepared when we arrived.”

Educating Global Citizens

Assistant Nursing Professor Nancy Pontes, a native of Peru and nurse practitioner, led the trip and taught Mattioli’s course. Pontes, who taught a course in Cuba in March, has presented research on the impact studying abroad has on students. “It can be a very transformative experience,” she said.

Learning Abroad courses require students to attend classes and complete reading and research assignments before traveling. To complete the class, students must finish an assignment such as a paper or presentation. “Some people have the idea that it’s a vacation for students, but it’s really rather rigorous,” Pontes said.

Immersing students in another culture enhances the learning experience for students in a way that cannot be replicated in a classroom, said Natasha Fletcher, associate director of Rutgers–Camden’s Center for Urban Research and Education, who has co-taught three Learning Abroad courses in Germany. “We find teaching opportunities on the go,” said Fletcher, a native of Germany who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Rutgers–Camden and her doctorate at Rutgers–New Brunswick. “When you stand in a park and discuss an issue that is visible right in front of you, you can see the wheels spinning for students.”

The Learning Abroad courses are a key element of a multifaceted effort in all Rutgers–Camden programs to infuse students with an international perspective, said Michael Palis, the university’s executive vice chancellor and provost. “We are global citizens,” Palis said. “We live in a global economy.” All undergraduates are required to complete a Global Communities component in the curriculum expanding their understanding of the world, Palis said. About 15 percent of those students participate in Learning Abroad courses.

In addition to educating American students, Palis said Rutgers–Camden is increasing its international recruitment and seeing a growth in students from other countries. Applications from international students have increased in recent years, as has enrollment. Students from more than 30 countries study at Rutgers–Camden, including significant populations from India and China. Palis, who grew up in the Philippines and came to the United States to earn his doctorate, has experienced firsthand the path of a successful international student. He went on to found Rutgers–Camden’s Department of Computer Science in 1996 and became the university’s provost in 2015. “You can change somebody’s life by giving them a perspective on what’s achievable,” he said.

Another aspect of Rutgers–Camden’s global footprint are 123 partnerships with international universities enabling student and faculty exchanges. In addition, Rutgers–Camden faculty members frequently win prestigious Fulbright scholarships that support overseas research. Palis said through this combination of robust global programs, exposure to other cultures is a cornerstone of a Rutgers–Camden education. “The world,” he said, “is our classroom.”

Octavio Yamamoto

Octavio Yamamoto, Doing Business in South Africa and Gentrification, Social Movements, and the Arts in Germany.  Yamamoto, a native of the Dominican Republic whose family emigrated to New Jersey when he was in high school, studied in South Africa and Germany. “I could not have gone on these trips without scholarships,” said Yamamoto, pictured at the Cape of Good Hope and the Reichstag, the seat of the German Parliament. Yamamoto, who earned accounting and finance degrees in 2017 and works for KPMG in Philadelphia, said his challenging hike to the top of Table Mountain, overlooking Cape Town, South Africa, “made me realize I have the potential to do more than I thought was possible.”

An Accessible Program

The experience of flying and leaving the country for the first time is common to many Rutgers–Camden students in the Learning Abroad programs, said Elizabeth Atkins, associate dean of the Office of International Students and Global Programs. “A lot of our students have never had a passport,” Atkins said.

The trips that last for 10 days provide for an immersive opportunity that is manageable for students, many of whom are first-generation college students and transfer students who often work and have family commitments. “They aren’t able to go for more than a week or two,” Atkins said.

A total of 262 students went on 17 Learning Abroad trips in 2018, a record number of students and up 38 percent from the previous year. Students and faculty this year traveled to 10 countries, including new destinations in Belgium, Israel, and Australia. (See the map on pages 14-15 for more detail.)

To offset expenses, Rutgers–Camden students who receive financial aid often can get increases in their financial aid packages. Also, more than a third of the students who traveled this year benefitted from several scholarships offered by the university. “Our goal is to make these programs as accessible and affordable as we can,” Atkins said.

One scholarship available for students traveling to take courses in nursing and health-related professions in Spanish-speaking countries is funded by a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s International and Foreign Language office that was awarded to the School of Nursing–Camden in 2016.

Alumni donors also have supported scholarships for students in Learning Abroad programs. Ed Kiessling CCAS’77 and his wife, Carolyn, established a fund in 2013 that supports international studies for students. “Being exposed to different cultures and countries abroad is one of the most formative educational experiences a young adult can have,” Ed Kiessling said. “In my time, I did not have the resources nor did the institution offer these opportunities to study abroad. I am delighted that is now possible at Rutgers–Camden, but I also recognize many students simply cannot afford this opportunity. We believe making this option financially manageable will have great benefits in creating well-rounded and educated individuals.”

To support Learning Abroad or other programs, contact Philip Ellmore, vice chancellor for institutional advancement, at 856-225-6957 or phillip.ellmore@rutgers.edu.


T’Enaya Dow, Comparative Criminal Justice in England, Scotland, and Wales and Psychology of Eating in Belgium and France. The first time Dow ever set foot on an airplane was when she flew to London for a course comparing criminal justice systems in Great Britain with those in America. Dow, pictured at left with classmates at Buckingham Palace, said the trip “made me see the bigger picture. It inspired me to learn
more about different cultures.” Dow, who earned a psychology degree in May, signed up for Psychology of Eating, which visited France and Belgium. “The first trip definitely made me want me to take more risks and jump outside of my comfort zone.”

Posted in: 2018 Fall, Features

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