Just as summer was winding down, around the time when many students were wrapping up internships and checking packing lists for a return to campus, 13 University of Pennsylvania undergraduates flew across an ocean and began acclimating to the thin air of the Swiss and Italian Alps.
As part of the Penn Summer Abroad program, the participants in the 10-day “Penn in the Alps” course received an intellectually and physically rigorous introduction to a region with geological, biological, historical, political and cultural traits found nowhere else. Led by Reto Gieré, chair and professor in the School of Arts & Science’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science, the students took an interdisciplinary approach to learn how the dramatic geology of the Alps shaped the way the region looks and operates. Gieré, who is from Zurich and has ancestral roots in the region’s alpine valleys, served as the students’ personal guide to the region.
“When you grow up in the mountains you are affected by them in all ways,” Gieré says. “Geological features have influenced the area’s history, the plants and wildlife, the languages, just everything. It’s one thing to read about it or hear about it, but, when you see it, it’s a different story.”
Constantly on the move, the students spent the better part of most days hiking, with stops for discussions of notable sites or natural phenomena. In the evenings, they settled down to multi-course meals at remote hostels and mountain inns.
Each student was asked to prepare a research paper on an Alps-related topic outside his or her academic major. The students presented their topics at points along the trail.
The Alps trip wasn’t the first chance that Sandra Loza-Avalos had to study abroad. The senior from San Antonio had spent portions of two previous summers visiting Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. Those choices were by design: as a pre-med, double major in biology and health and societies who just sub-matriculated into Penn’s Master of Public Health program, it wasn’t easy to find room in her schedule during the academic year to take a traditional semester abroad.
Her research project for the course, which focused on natural disasters and risks in the Alps, tied together several of her interests: climate change, sustainability and disaster relief.
“I ended up giving my presentation at the site where a rock slide had occurred and where the sides of a river had been paved to prevent further rock falls,” she says. “It was amazing to see up close the power of these natural processes. We were constantly in awe of everything that we saw.”
For Caleb Carter, a sophomore from Abilene, Texas, the course was, at least superficially, a departure from his typical area of study as a Wharton student focusing on finance, accounting and social impact and responsibility. But he quickly found that the diversity of student backgrounds was a boon to the trip as a whole.
“My friend from Wharton and I asked questions the geology students wouldn’t have thought to ask, and they asked questions we would have had no idea to ask,” Carter says.
The course, though heavy on science, also gave him new context for thinking about his business coursework.
“We’d talk about things like waste removal, which is very relevant to business models,” he says, “and we discussed European political models, including Switzerland, which is pretty close to a direct democracy.”
Gieré, assisted by teaching assistant Philipp Sedlazeck, encouraged students to make the most of the outdoor classroom, seizing opportunities to witness nature in a way they never could sitting in a classroom in Philadelphia.
“A main point of the course is for the students to learn how to observe nature, make their own observations and draw conclusions,” Gieré says. “Even if they’re wrong it forces them to look first, record them and put things together.”
The same idea applied to cultural learning. Junior Hailey Dougherty of Fairfax, Va., says her favorite day of the trip involved exploring historic Chiavenna, Italy.
“We were in the most charming, picturesque mountain village, and Professor Gieré told us to just explore, looking at the architecture and trying to draw our own conclusions about things like when it was built,” she says. “We had the freedom to teach ourselves and be constantly curious about what we were seeing.”
Gieré’s intimate knowledge of the region made for a memorable experience for the students, far different than any other trip to the Alps they might have ventured on their own.
“When he was a student, Reto had literally mapped these areas we were hiking, spending six months with just his research partner and an altimeter,” Carter says. “It became a running joke on the trip that we could come back to Switzerland and look around for a year and never find the places we’d been to.”
The course even led to something of an epiphany for Eryn Heintz, a junior anthropology major from Clearwater, Fla.
“Toward the end of the trip, on a super long hike, Reto and Philipp stopped, took out their hammers and started busting open rocks and telling us about what they were finding,” she says. “I just thought, ‘This is so cool. I want to do field work. I want this excitement in my daily life, I want to travel and just dig in the dirt.’”
She’s planning to shift her studies to focus on archaeology and would like to spend next summer at an archaeological field school. And if a career-changing realization wasn’t enough to take away from the experience, Heintz also left with plenty of Instagram-worthy moments.
“One day we were having lunch, sitting by the Rhine, and I was eating my cherries, other people were eating bread and cheese, it was just perfect,” she says. “I turned to my friend and said, if I wasn’t me right now, I would be very jealous of me right now.”