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MCCC Students Gain New Perspectives in Study Tours
To Poland and Amsterdam

8/5/13


West Windsor, N.J. – It was a tale of contrasting travel experiences.  Mercer County Community College (MCCC) students who participated in faculty-led Study Tours to Poland and Amsterdam in late May got together recently to share their impressions and opinions about the cultures and histories of the countries they visited.

While their experiences varied widely, all the travelers – including the professors who led the trips -- agreed that the lessons they learned will never be forgotten.

The trip to Poland was led by professors Craig Coenen (history) and Jack Tabor (English).  For Coenen, Tabor, and their students, excursions to the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, the Treblinka killing center, and the Warsaw Ghetto provided powerful backdrops to explore themes of intolerance, inhumanity, and the meaning of the Holocaust. 

“Visiting these places was our daily work,” Tabor said. “When you approach the real thing, the undeniable reality of the Holocaust, that moment of understanding is a profound experience.”

Both professors noted that their group enjoyed Polish hospitality as they visited cultural sites and sampled local foods, but that the evil of the Holocaust was ever present.

Professor Coenen said that theirs was different than a typical tourist experience.  “It was not a destination.  It was an attempt to understand an idea.”  Tabor added that in many ways the trip provoked more questions than answers.

According to student Brandon Stanzeski, a Radio/Television major, the trip truly brought history to life.  “You read about the concentration camps, you see them depicted in movies, but walking through the gates and seeing them still standing is overwhelming,” he said, adding the experience was made even more real by viewing the collection of artifacts from the prisoners: shoes, suitcases, children’s clothing and toys.

“It’s a reminder of the real evil in the world that used to be and still is.  Why can’t the human race move forward?” Stanzeski said.  “It saddens and angers me.”

Student Robert Lages was especially moved by acts of heroism.  “I learned about how bad human beings can be, but also how amazing.   I learned a lot about myself and was moved in a way I never thought I could be,” he said.

Lages noted that a highlight of the emotionally draining trip was traveling as a group.  “By the end, we were kind of like a family,” he said.

One and all agree that the experience was life altering.  According to Coenen, it has changed him on a personal and professional level.  “It will bring a level of depth and validity to what I teach about the Holocaust.”

Shift to present day Amsterdam, where the Study Tour entitled “Sex & Drugs: Cultural Acceptance and Pragmatic Social Policy!” was all about tolerance and an exploration of social policies that protect even those on the edge of society, including sex workers and drug addicts.  The group was led by professors Karen Bearce (Psychology) and Denise Ingram (Sociology).

Students and professors alike were intrigued by the city’s liberal policies. James Reslier-Wells, one of six students who made the trip, noted that tolerance in Amsterdam is not just a legal concept.  “It’s a way of life,” he said.

“It’s a non-judgmental environment,” Nikolette Lichtman agreed.  “Their attitude is if what you’re doing isn’t harming me, it’s none of my business.  Their approach is to minimize the harm to the individual and the society.”

Pictured during the tour of the Birkenau concentration camp are, from left, Professor Jack Tabor, students Alexandra Bussey, Brandon Castro (background), Brandon Stanzeski, Les Grunes and Robert Lages.
At a lighter moment in Krakow, from left, Brandon Castro, Alexandra Bussey, Robert Lages, professors Craig Coenen and Jack Tabor (kneeling), and students Brandon Stanzeski and Les Grunes.
Listening to tour guide Madelief ter Braak in Amsterdam are from left, Nikolette Lichtman, Taylor Pickett-Stokes, Kelly Wittkop, Samantha Remer and James Reslier-Wells.
On the way to the ancient city of Utrecht, the religious center of the Netherlands, are, from left, James Reslier-Wells, Nikolette Lichtman, Taylor Pickett-Stokes and Kelly Wittkop.

The itinerary included visits to the Amsterdam Gender Clinic, the Hash Marihuana Hemp Museum, the Prostitute Information Center and the Sex Museum, where students had a chance to speak with guides and other staff.

Lichtman was struck by policies that have decriminalized the use of soft drugs like marijuana and provide those who take drugs with the information they need to partake more responsibly and safely, including clean needles and access to health care.

“I didn’t feel like they were encouraging people to take drugs,” Lichtman emphasized.  “They were saying, ‘This is the drug.  This is what it will do.  Be prepared for these things.’  Drug abuse is viewed more as a mental health issue and less like a crime.”

During their visit to the Prostitute Information Center, the group met a former sex worker turned advocate.  Commenting on the protections afforded female sex workers, Ingram explained, “In Amsterdam, they ask the question, ‘How do we make these women safe?’  Their belief is that the government has a responsibility to provide protection.  The police are allies in this process.”

Student Samantha Remer remarked on the group’s visit to the Amsterdam Gender Clinic.  “There are gender teams that talk about sexuality, even with little kids.  The medical care there is fantastic.  It covers everything, even gender change,” she noted.

Student Olivia Mahnkopf was impressed with the open-mindedness of Amsterdam society and believes that the United States could learn from it.  She said, “I have always been an observer.  That’s why I am psychology-minded.  Now I consider myself sociology-minded as well.” 

The students added that these policies are not without their critics.  “There is an internal struggle between the conservatives and progressives at the moment,” Lichtman said.  “The conservatives are in power now, and they are trying to enact new rules, but can’t sustain them.”

Ingram noted that it was gratifying to observe the students as they dealt with challenges to their very American world view and tried to approach their experiences from another perspective.  “That is a core skill in the social sciences, one that will allow them to become ethical citizens in an increasingly globalized world,” Ingram observed.

According to Bearce, Mercer students could not have been better ambassadors for the college and the United States.  “The highlight of the trip for me was witnessing the critical thinking skills of the students.  Some of the lecturers complimented them on their knowledge and great questions. It made me proud to have them representing the college.”

In addition to opportunities to study abroad for a full semester, MCCC will offer Study Tours to London, Italy, China and Costa Rica in 2014.  More information is available at www.mccc.edu/studyabroad.

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