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Life Lessons: Scott Dionne's study abroad rewards teacher and students
Photos and Story by James Hill
by Mark EvertzHe lectured louder than he is accustomed. It had something to do with paper-thin walls and the incessant whine of Vespa motorscooters. Life wasn’t going to take a break just so Portland Community College’s Scott Dionne could teach his students in peace. He had to improvise. He had to adapt.When computers weren’t readily available, Scott brought his writing and literature students to the world before computers and typewriters, having them write assignments in longhand."I really wanted them to emulate Dante and learn how to compose before Apple Macs were around,"he said. "Some did them on computers at Internet caf’s, but I discouraged that."No copiers. No fax machines. No Internet connections without a long walk or drive to an Internet caf’. No 24-7-365-access to as much or as little as you need.Now before you go and shed a tear for poor Scott Dionne and his diligent, yet technologically deprived students, you should probably know something.Scott, a teaching colleague of his from Rogue Community College, and about 30 adventure-seeking students were roughing it in Florence, Italy.And if you ask Scott, or any participant in the five-college Study Abroad Program past or present, the "do more with less"was more invigorating than annoying."The things you take for granted here evaporate over there,"Scott said, reflecting on his fall 2000 stint in Italy. "But to me they weren’t liabilities. They were liberations."The consortium of Oregon community colleges – which is made up of Chemeketa, Clackamas, Mount Hood, Portland and Rogue – banded together to create a teaching and learning experience that not only broadens minds, but brings those perspectives back home to classrooms in Oregon.Selected students and instructors can choose between Florence and London as their locales of higher learning. All credits earned from the term abroad are transferable back to the colleges in Oregon."So students can have their European experience without taking a break from school,"Scott explained. "No surprise, it’s pretty competitive. People want to go."Thirty students, ranging in age from 18 to 26, and two instructors packed their bags last fall to learn the likes of Machiavelli, Dante and Petrarch from their homeland. Italian language courses, a good measure of Shakespeare – and geography and women’s studies classes taught by Serena St. Claire of Rogue Community College – completed a packed, but manageable, course load. There was even more to learn outside of the classroom.Sun-drenched buildings, streets and domiciles burst with character and an ornate architectural regality. Students took field trips to Pisa and Siena and explored other villages and cities outside of Florence proper to broaden the broadening."Just what your eyes can take in is worth the trip over there alone,"Scott reminisced. "These beautiful villages are the kind you see in calendars and movies. I wanted students doing as much as they could over there. "It was very important to me that they had their own experiences – they found all of the relevant discos,"he joked.Message to all: Get out and experience life! You just might learn something. That’s a lesson that PCC English and ENL teacher Jane Zunkel carries with her to this day."The Study Abroad Program allowed me to learn with my students, rather than to teach to them,"said Zunkel, who went to London in the spring of 1996, the first year of PCC’s involvement in the program. "We experienced places and events as a group and first-hand, no distance, no filters. We lived in an environment of spontaneous discovery, the best kind of learning."As far as being a teacher in a foreign land, learning right along with his students, Scott reveled in the camaraderie."It was a good-sized group and everybody got along,"he said, remembering the Thursday night gatherings he chaired at a rotating list of watering holes for dinner and drinks."I really enjoyed them, they tolerated me,"he chuckled. "I’ve been to Italy before but not to live, so we all were in this together and had the same experiences."Scott’s no stranger to teaching and learning right along with his students. At 42, his teaching and learning trek has been a life-long journey, taking him to Seattle University to teach writing, and to disabled students in the university’s learning center, to China to teach English, and to a Navaho Indian reservation in Arizona to teach World Literature. All likely done with the same aplomb and adaptability."Every obstacle was little and you just didn’t care,"he said.It’s that shifting of perspective that Scott says permeates his classes at PCC. Being in Italy, navigating its pace and heartbeat, taught him a lot about teaching."I was definitely in a more ponderous mood over there,"he breathed, for effect. "I think most of all, I’m more confident in my teaching because of this experience."I’m teaching the Renaissance this winter, and I’ll do that with a little more authority now,"he added.If he could take a piece of Italy home with him to Portland, it would likely be the sunsets."There’s this hill overlooking Florence, with the Statue of David, a bronze copy, at the top of the hill,"Scott enthused, remembering Piazza Michelangelo. "I’d hike up to the top by going through the vineyards and neighborhoods. Then I’d sit, have a grappa and watch the sun go down."Wonderful."