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Honors Study Abroad Course on Basque Culture Goes Virtual

International Internships, Classes and More Available to Students Online

UML honors mechanical engineering major Scott Penfield shows off a Basque cheesecake he cooked for a class assignment Photo by Courtesy
Honors student Scott Penfield shows off a Basque cheesecake he made for an online course in Basque history and culture.

06/15/2020
By Katharine Webster

The secret to making an authentic Spanish tortilla – a sort of omelet stuffed with fried potatoes and onions – is in the flip.

Honors College Visiting Prof. Julian Zabalbeascoa couldn’t demonstrate the flip to students in person, so using Zoom instead, he flipped his own tortilla onto a large plate and slid it, wet side down, back into the frying pan. Then, he watched as 19 students flipped their own tortillas in their own kitchens. 

One student slopped raw egg onto the electric burner. Another slid half the tortilla onto the floor. Yet another ended up with scrambled eggs and potatoes. But a few showed off their perfect tortillas, with crispy egg outside and a still-jiggling golden mass of potatoes and onions inside.
View of the harbor and beach in San Sebastian, Spain Photo by Julian Zabalbeascoa
San Sebastian's harbor.

This is what study abroad looks like in the age of COVID-19. 

“Learning about a place by reading or writing about it, there’s no comparison to actually going there,” says Scott Penfield, an Honors College mechanical engineering major who studied abroad in Cuba with Zabalbeascoa and then signed up for the professor’s three-week summer course in San Sebastian, Spain, which was grounded due to the coronavirus.

“But this (online) class has definitely exceeded my expectations. Julian’s been able to get us a bunch of really cool, really knowledgeable guest speakers. The silver lining is that we’re not limited only to people in the Basque country,” Penfield says.

Zabalbeascoa’s Honors College summer study abroad program in San Sebastian, a city in the heart of the Spanish Basque country that is world renowned for its food, is so popular that students filled three sections this year, and almost half of the students who applied had to be turned away. 

Then the pandemic led the university to recall all students studying abroad and cancel its spring break and summer programs.

Fern MacKinnon, director of International Experiences & Study Abroad, asked Zabalbeascoa if he could offer an online version of the Basque immersion experience, since a handful of students were counting on it to complete their Honors College requirements.
UML honors student Marina Khalif shows off a perfect Spanish tortilla on Zoom Photo by Screenshot
Honors student Marina Khalif displays a perfect Spanish tortilla on Zoom.

So Zabalbeascoa, who is of Basque heritage, reached deep into his Rolodex, enlisting a dozen guest speakers in Spain, Germany and the U.S. to help him teach his students about Basque history and culture – including how to dance the fandango and how to make a Basque cheesecake. Nineteen students signed up for the online class, while others decided to wait until they can study abroad in person.

Zabalbeascoa acknowledges there’s no substitute for an actual study abroad experience, but a rich learning experience is still being offered online, he says. 

“We’ve got the leading expert on the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, the leading expert on the Nazi occupation of the French Basque country and cookbook author Marti Buckley, who wrote a New York Times best cookbook of 2018,” he says.

Like Zabalbeascoa, Manning School of Business Assoc. Teaching Prof. Ashwin Mehta moved the two-week summer component of his Global Entrepreneurship Exchange online. The program brings together UML students and international scholars for two weeks of classes, business tours, talks by executives and social entrepreneurs and the creation of new business projects.

The other UML faculty-led study abroad courses and direct exchange programs were canceled altogether. But students can still sign up for other global experiences, including online internships with international organizations and courses with an intercultural focus offered by UMass Lowell’s  study-abroad partner organizations, MacKinnon says.
A bridge in San Sebastian, Spain Photo by Julian Zabalbeascoa
Maria Cristina bridge in San Sebastian, looking toward the old city.

“We’re inviting students to get their feet wet with a host culture that they might want to do full study abroad in later,” MacKinnon says. “It’s not the same as being face-to-face, but they are getting what I think people need right now – a little bit of fun.”

Normally, students can enroll in a global internship during their study abroad as an add-on, for-credit experience. Now, they can still earn that international experience and those credits, but remotely, MacKinnon says.

Partner organizations match each student with a company or nonprofit abroad. Students attend an online classroom module with discussion of their internship experiences, workshops and networking in their field. They also enjoy a cultural module that exposes them to music and art, cooking classes, virtual tours and guest speakers from the host country. 

It’s not too late to sign up, MacKinnon says: Some experiences are still available in July and August.
UML honors nursing major Autumn Lopez watches intently on Zoom as Visiting Prof. Julian Zabalbeascoa flips a Spanish tortilla Photo by Screenshot
Honors student Autumn Lopez watches intently on Zoom as Honors Visiting Prof. Julian Zabalbeascoa flips his tortilla.

While fall study abroad programs have not been canceled yet, MacKinnon says the odds are good that some or all of them will be, so her staff made sure that students who’d signed up had a “Plan B”: registering for on-campus classes and rolling over their study abroad plans to 2021.

Not counting those “rollovers,” more than 100 students have already applied to study abroad next year, MacKinnon says. 

Autumn Lopez, an honors nursing major, was signed up to go to San Sebastian this summer. Still, the online Basque class, especially the history, has made her more excited than ever to study abroad with Zabalbeascoa next year.

“You know how you have a picture in your head while you’re reading? I actually want to see the places where those things happened,” she says.

That’s exactly what Zabalbeascoa is aiming for.

“My dream for this online class is that this is the one and only time I teach it,” he says. “I’m hoping that by next summer, some of these students can go with me to San Sebastian – and they’ll have this great foundation that they can build upon.”