Students Learn About the Hero’s Quest Through Film and Literature

Matt Levenson visits London in fall 2016.
Honors student Matt Levenson checks out a phone booth on a trip to London.

By Katharine Webster

Jessica Fruth has worked nonstop since she was 14, usually at more than one job.

She studies hard, too. Because she aims for a career in advertising, the honors student from Braintree is majoring in marketing and minoring in English and graphic art.

But a new interdisciplinary honors seminar, A Call to Adventure, has persuaded her that sometimes it’s important to take a break, step back and gain perspective. So instead of starting work full-time as soon as classes end in May, she’s planning a solo four-week trip through continental Europe — her first trip to non-English-speaking countries.

Fruth wants to reconnect with nature, experience different cultures and contemplate her own life’s journey — and she says the class has given her the confidence to do it.

“Going someplace where I’m not comfortable and that’s not familiar makes me think about what I want to do as an individual, instead of being influenced by the people around me,” she says. “To the extent you have choices, you’re in charge of the outcome of your own life.”

A Call to Adventure is taught by Julian Zabalbeascoa, a visiting professor in the Honors College. Students examine the stages of the hero’s journey, as described by mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, through movies and books. Then they discuss them and write two short essays a week.

Honors College Dean Jim Canning says the course exemplifies the spirit of the college, which not only offers challenging classes within students’ majors, but its own lineup of small, interdisciplinary seminars, including Art and the Nazis, The Politics of College Sports, and Science and Technology in an Impoverished World.

“This new course is part of the Honors College’s menu of unique seminars that invite our students to step outside their majors and develop greater intellectual breadth,” Canning says. “What I love is seeing our students take more academic risks and expand their horizons by studying abroad, using a hands-on approach to solve problems in the developing world, or simply becoming more thoughtful about their lives and careers.”

Visiting Prof. Julian Zabalbeascoa listens to a student in an honors class at UMass Lowell. Image by K. Webster
Visiting Prof. Julian Zabalbeascoa teaches A Call to Adventure and leads Honors College study-abroad trips to Cuba and Spain.

In A Call to Adventure, Zabalbeascoa has students watch movies ranging from “Star Wars” to “The Graduate” and “Cinema Paradiso” and read books including “Wild,” by Cheryl Strayed, and “The Infinite,” a novel by Nicholas Mainieri about love in post-Katrina New Orleans and amid Mexico’s drug wars. Mainieri will visit the class in April.

“I would not be who I am without the movies I’ve watched and the books I’ve read,” Zabalbeascoa says. “I believe in the power of narrative to inspire us to seek new experiences, and those experiences give shape to our lives and reveal to us who we are.”

Zabalbeascoa should know. When he was in college at University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., he took a similar class in religion and cinema — and promptly dropped out to travel in Spain, where he explored his Basque heritage. He returned a year later and completed his degree, then worked a series of jobs before ending up in Hollywood, where he became actor Jeff Bridges’ personal assistant.

But he got restless and decided he wanted more adventures. He earned his M.F.A. in creative writing while living in Madrid, where he met his future wife. He also traveled through Europe, South America, North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast and Central Asia.

Now Zabalbeascoa teaches the First-Year Seminar in Honors (FYSH), in which students explore Lowell’s history and culture. He also developed the Honors College's unique study-abroad courses, which occur in Cuba over winter break and in San Sebastian, Spain — the crossroads of Spanish, Basque and French culture — during the summer.

Honors student Ania Burgess reads while waiting for class to begin at UMass Lowell. Image by K. Webster
Honors student Ania Burgess reads before class begins.

First-year mechanical engineering major Ania Burgess says she took A Call to Adventure because she loves Zabalbeascoa’s active, hands-on teaching style. This is her third class with him this year: She took FYSH in the fall and traveled to Cuba in January.

This class is a different kind of adventure — and it provides a welcome break from the intense science and math focus of her engineering classes, she says.

“It’s an intellectual adventure,” she says. “I’ve always been very tied to the humanities, which are about looking within yourself and asking, ‘What do I think about this?’”

Matt Levenson, a sophomore majoring in criminal justice and minoring in psychology, heard the call to adventure before he ever took the class.

He loves to climb mountains in nearby New Hampshire or to explore Lowell with his roommates, and he’s planning several international trips, including a study-abroad experience in Portugal this summer. But A Call to Adventure has given him a broader perspective — and taught him that adventure is an attitude.

“There are so many things you can only do once. You can’t take anything for granted,” he says. “This class is absolutely, 100 percent making me more intentional about the actions I take and the hero’s journey I want to be on.”