As the director of our new study abroad office at Duke Kunshan University, it was my honor and privilege to participate in the CIEE annual conference held this year from November 7-10 in Barcelona. It was also a great pleasure to visit this wonderful city for the first time (which I will write up in another entry to follow). The focus of the CIEE conference was on “educating global citizens in the digital age” and the conference included many insightful presentations and panels on a wide range of topics relating to the central theme. As we are just starting to develop our outbound and inbound study abroad programs at DKU, I was eager to absorb the knowledge and wisdom of this distinguished body of conference participants from dozens of universities and programs, who possess decades of experience designing, running, and leading study abroad programs that take their students all around the world.
I arrived in Barcelona on Monday evening November 5, after a long flight on Swissair from Shanghai via Zurich. Since the conference venue Hotel Arts on the seashore was beyond my budget limitations, I had selected to stay at the nearby Salles Hotel Pere IV. This is a more modest hotel located in a neighborhood about 20 minutes walk from the beach and the conference hotel. One benefit of staying at this hotel was that I was able to get a nice brisk walk in every morning to the conference venue, which ended with a stroll along the promenade looking out to the Mediterranean Sea. Since the conference venue was on the shoreline, it was also nice to take a break now and then and walk outside to see the activities on the beach and in the sea, where a large marina was located. Watching the sun rise and set over the Mediterranean, and seeing the sea in its various colors and moods with a range of weather patterns from sunshine to clouds to rain was one of the most memorable aspects of my sojourn in Barcelona for this conference, especially since this was the first time in my life that I had seen the Mediterranean with my own eyes.
The conference hotel was very posh and elegant, and the facilities for the conference were top notch. We were spoiled for food and drink throughout most of the conference, with plenty of snacks and coffee breaks and breakfasts, luncheons and dinners. Most of the conference took place in the conference halls and foyer located on the lower level (-2) of the building. The size of the halls and foyer matched well with the body of conference participants, allowing for plenty of mingling in between talks and panels, and people could of course spill out into other levels or outside to the veranda to catch some fresh air, as I did on many occasions.
During four-day conference, the members of host organization were themselves consumate hosts. I met many CIEE representatives from various sites scattered across the globe. One thing I find in general about CIEE staff members is that they are extremely well-equipped for intercultural education. They tend to speak multiple languages, they are well traveled, they have high EQs, they tolerate ambiguity and contradictions, and they exhibit the natural curiosity of people who spend their lives learning, studying and teaching about other languages, cultures and societies. This holds true in general for all the conference participants of course, but I was especially impressed by the qualities I perceived in our conference hosts, who were all keen and eager to facilitate many meetings, introductions, and discussions throughout the entirety of the conference.
On the day after arriving in Barcelona, I attended the CIEE open house at their study center located in the heart of the city. There we were greeted by the many staff members who run the facility, which itself is located inside a passageway, the Passatge Permanyer, which ensconsed the study center in a gorgeous old neighborhood away from the traffic of the city. We were also given the opportunity to converse with some of the students from America who are currently studying at the center. They shared with us more information about the programs, what they are studying, and what sorts of experiences they are having in Barcelona and in Europe. It was apparent that as with many other study abroad programs, these students spend much of their time studying, traveling and socializing with each other, although they also have plenty of opportunities to meet local students as well as students from other countries, since most of them are taking courses at local universities such as University of Barcelona.
The highlight of the open house event was being taken on a tour of the Casa Batllo, located within easy walking distance of the study center. Our host for this tour was a CIEE professor named Tony (didn’t catch his surname), a very amiable and knowledgeable guide. He led us through this unique home designed by the famous designer and architect Antoni Gaudi, whose presence is deeply embedded in the built environment of this city. Tony explained how the various designs and imagery embedded in the walls, stairways, windows and ceilings imbues the home with an underwater theme, connecting it to the sea that made Barcelona what it is today (I will write this up in more detail in my next blog on Barcelona). He then took us up to the rooftop to show us the gorgeous view of the city and its environs. He also spoke about the importance of Barcelona’s patron saint Jordi (St. George), and showed us the hilt of the sword that slew the dragon. (I am still very curious about how this patron saint and his story became such a big part of the city’s culture.)
The following morning, I attended a special workshop in the conference venue led by two CIEE representatives, Quinton Redcliffe and Whitney Sherman, on the subject of incultural growth and experiential learning. The highlight of this session was learning about the Frederick Douglas Global Fellows program and hearing from two of the students who had participated in the program led by “Papa Q” (Quinton) in Capetown South Africa. Clearly this had been a transformative journey for these students.
That evening, we enjoyed a keynote speech by the energetic speaker Eddie Obeng who showcased his virtual office technology called Qube while encouraging us to face the new realities of global learning. Later in the conference, another keynote speaker, the architect Benedetta Taglibue shared her own personal story with us while also highlighting her and her late husband’s contributions to the built environment of the city.
I will not bore the reader with the details of all the various panels that I attended, except to say that I gained many valuable insights for setting up and running, assessing and evaluating and facilitating study abroad programs and learning experiences through attending those panels. I also benefitted a great deal from the many one-on-one conversations that I had with so many other attendees, who not only were eager to share their own insights and experiences, but were also equally curious to learn about DKU and the programs we are establishing as well as about my own experiences of living and working in the Asia Pacific and in China. Again, this reflects well upon the qualities of this distinguished body of conference attendees, who are open to new ideas and perspectives and always willing to share and to learn from others.
Two other highlights of the conference were the social events that CIEE organized for us. On the evening of Thursday November 8, we attended a soiree inside the main hall of the University of Barcelona’s oldest campus in the heart of the city. The reception culminated inside the beautifully decorated Medieval-style hall on the second floor with a rousing performance by a group of male guitarists and singers who got the crowd dancing with Spanish songs and even led the attendees in a conga line dance.
On Friday evening the 9th, we were bused out of the city to a winery called Cordoniu Cavas where we spent two hours eating and drinking fine wines and cheeses including the famous Catalonian cavas (sparkling wine). The highlight of the evening was a ride on a train-like vehicle down several levels into the underground caves where they keep the bottles. The young lady pictured here was the driver. One of the attendees quipped that this experience was like an alcoholic Disneyland.
All in all, this was one of most memorable conferences that I have attended in my 20-year career as a professional educator. I was left with an even greater impression of the host organization, which I worked for many years ago in Shanghai, and all of the dynamic ways that CIEE is developing and pushing the envelope of study abroad. This was my first CIEE conference, but I assure you it won’t be my last, and I hope I can make it to Brooklyn in 2019.