It’s one thing to learn important lessons from history. But for Union students Kayla Miller and Natasha McWilliams-Nasser, seeing history firsthand means those lessons will last a lifetime.
This summer, 10 Union Scholars students took a whirlwind tour of Italy, France and Switzerland. But this was far more than a run-of-the-mill European vacation. In fact, each student prepared by studying a significant historical landmark or artifact, and presenting their findings to the rest of the class.
Not your average class report
Miller, like many of the other students, presented her research on the day they visited the site. After reading a book on the battle of Hastings, Miller was interested in the Bayeux Tapestry, an ancient embroidered linen that tells the story of the Norman conquest of England.
A senior nursing major, Miller describes the 700-pound hand stitched work that is almost 1,000 years old. “It is magnificent. I was grateful to see it in person after giving my presentation that morning, and then point out to my classmates the features I had described. It was really exciting to be able to round out all I had studied and actually present it right there.”
“It was amazing seeing all the historical places we have learned about from day one in school. We went to Normandy beach. It was humbling to imagine all that happened on that beach,” said Miller.
The students learned even more by traveling with their professors. “The knowledge they offered was amazing!” said Miller. “Especially Dr. Russell [co-director of the Union Scholars program]. I can definitely say that he is a walking textbook—in the best way possible! His passion amplified ours.”
Spiritual lessons in many languages
Miller enjoyed joining the local church in Cologne, France for church. “I don’t speak French,” she admitted. “But during the song service, they sang songs in French that we know in English. I think that is what Heaven will be like. We will be able to sing together and communicate—all to praise Jesus.”
McWilliams-Nasser had a spiritual epiphany climbing the Duomo in sunny Florence, Italy. As they climbed the 400 steps to the dome opening they got an up-close view of the murals that covered the walls and ceiling. “In that time they focused on depicting Bible stories through art, since many people were illiterate,” McWilliams-Nasser explained. “In the Duomo the main focus was a depiction of Hell. It was ghastly. People were being eaten and tortured by demons. Their focus was scaring people into following God, and it also worked to scare them into paying penance. Their focus was less on God’s love, and more a message of ‘be good or you’ll be sent here, and it’s terrible.’”
The reward at the top of the Duomo was an unforgettable 360-degree view of Florence. But the dark depictions inside will not soon be forgotten either.
“In our three weeks in Europe, we saw so many cathedrals, giant structures and palaces,” said McWilliams-Nasser. “Until you see the history, you don’t appreciate what it means. You can really appreciate things more when you have that background knowledge.”
Friends who travel together, stay together
Even simple things like eating breakfast at an Italian café seemed surreal. But doing it with friends was even more elating.
“One of the best things about this trip was our group,” said
McWilliams-Nasser, a senior studying communication. “Most of them were basically strangers at the beginning of the semester. But this was a super cohesive group. It was so much fun building friendships with them. I’m taking new friends into next school year. The memories we created are unique and special.”
“We aren’t only from the sciences or only from humanities,” chimed in Miller. “Union Scholars includes curious people from all departments. We have some pretty cool conversations—sometimes intellectual, sometimes funny. It is good to get to know how others think from their backgrounds and their experiences in life. Having conversations with people from all across campus is a really great opportunity.”
Diving deeper into learning
The Union Scholars program allows students to delve into deeper study and discussion with classes designed exclusively for honors students. The program is open to any student with a 3.5 or above GPA in secondary school to apply. It not only provides access to fascinating advanced courses, but Union Scholars are also eligible for additional GPA-based scholarships.
“The great thing about Union and the honors program is that it encourages students to see the world but they also help make it possible,” explained McWilliams-Nasser. “The cost for this trip was $4,000. I wouldn’t have been able to go. But the program gives a $2,000 scholarship if you stay in the honors program the whole time, and it gives you $1,000 when you graduate. So I had to pay only $1,000 to fly to Europe and see all that history. What a deal!”
The Union Scholars program embarks on a study tour every other summer, so most honors students have the opportunity to go if they choose.
“The world is huge,” said McWilliams-Nasser. “ There is so much to offer. There is so much beauty and so much good food to try.” Bon Appétit, Union Scholars!
By Carrie Purkeypile, freelance writer and 2003 graduate