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Isabelle SacramentoGrilo and students in Portugal.

A different course

Faculty-led study abroad offers students unique experiences, connections

By Michael Klitzing

Geological sciences lecturer Isabelle SacramentoGrilo has taught Natural Disasters at San Diego State University for 17 years. But last summer, she was to present the subject matter in an entirely new way:

Conducting class while strolling down the cobblestone streets of Lisbon, Portugal — a city built atop ruins from a cataclysmic earthquake and tsunami in 1755.

Spending four solid weeks with 17 students and allowing them to pick her brain on both plate tectonics and her own Portuguese upbringing.

Even leading students inside an active volcano in the Azores.

“I remember taking this bus to one of the sites and it started to go downhill. I told the students, ‘We are now going inside a volcano,’” recalls SacramentoGrilo, who will teach the faculty-led study abroad program Natural Disasters in Lisbon/Azores again this summer.

“I looked at their faces and they were stunned; it was an incredible experience for them.”

Incredible experiences are exactly what faculty-led study abroad programs are about. Typically offered during winter and summer breaks through the SDSU College of Extended Studies (CES), faculty-led programs allow students to travel abroad with a faculty member and a cohort of classmates and take a credit-bearing course on a specific subject.

(The deadline to apply for a summer faculty-led program is March 15. View all summer program offerings in the Aztecs Abroad Database or see a list of CES faculty-led programs at

These programs offer a shorter time commitment and typically lower costs than semester- or year-long study abroad programs. But most importantly, they offer students the unique chance to build close bonds with classmates and faculty, immerse themselves in a subject and enjoy the comfort of a built-in support network.

Lifelong friends

Studying abroad with a group of classmates is a shared experience that often fosters new and meaningful friendships — even among students who might not have otherwise even met.

“I made so many friends,” said Alexis Pacheco, a public administration junior at SDSU-Imperial Valley, who spent a month last summer taking SDSU-Imperial Valley lecturer Bret Kofford’s creative writing course in Valencia, Spain. “The majority of the group was from Imperial Valley, but there were a small amount of students from the SDSU main campus. Seeing everyone integrate and ask questions about each other’s campuses and college experiences was interesting.”

Kofford, who is leading a program to Galway, Ireland this summer after previously leading programs to Spain, Argentina and Italy, has noticed this dynamic many times before.

“A lot of my students have maintained friendships afterwards where students from the Valley will visit their friends in San Diego, or students from San Diego will come out to the Valley,” he said. “When you’re together for a month and having all these experiences, you get to know each other well. People become lifelong friends because of the experience.”

Information systems major David McLean-Perkins, who traveled on SacramentoGrilo’s program in Portugal, said he and his fellow students became a “tight group” and adds that he has caught up with five of them since returning to the U.S. He fondly recalls a moment from early in the program — a students-only dinner they enjoyed at a Lisbon restaurant.

“The whole group went and kind of bonded right there over some traditional Portuguese food,” he said.

An immersive experience

McLean-Perkins went to Lisbon less for the geology than to explore his own Portuguese roots. He got what he was looking for thanks to the cultural insights provided by SacramentoGrilo, who even led the group on a side excursion to her picturesque seaside hometown of Cascais. But McLean-Perkins came to find the geology fascinating, as well.

“Learning in a classroom with a professor is one thing, but when you’re in the field, when you’re living and eating and spending time with that person, you get so much more out of it,” McLean-Perkins said. “You have so much time and you’re able to ask more questions. I’m not a geology major but it made the whole learning experience interesting for everybody.”

Likely as a result of the immersive experience, SacramentoGrilo said her students’ test scores were higher on average than when she teaches her class in a more traditional classroom setting.

“They were with me for a whole month and and they had no other class,” SacramentoGrilo said. “Even though the tests were often harder because they were more tailored to the location, they still did really well. The highest grade I gave was 100 percent — and I don’t inflate grades!”

Someone looking out

When journalism junior Victoria Moorwood thinks back to her time in Kofford’s program last summer, some pretty vivid memories come flooding back: Enjoying delicious paella in the seaside town of Meliana, Spain, or swimming in the Mediterranean as festival fireworks lit the night sky.

But she also remembers how secure she felt traveling with a faculty member focused on student safety and well-being. 

“It’s great to experience travel with a knowledgeable professor who really has your best interest at heart,” Moorwood said. “There is always someone looking out for you, which helps when you’re out of your comfort zone.”

Faculty-led programs do offer students free time, outside of excursion and lesson time, to enjoy nightlife or sightsee on their own terms. Kofford said that when his students go out in the evenings, he’ll usually sit in a coffee shop, reading or working on one of his screenplays — but he’s by his phone in case anyone needs him.

“Faculty-led programs can really help students deal with things like homesickness or other issues — I’ve had to handle a lot of things through the years,” Kofford said. “But these programs have allowed me to bond with students in ways you can’t in the classroom. You share an experience. You see them when they’re tired and you see them when they’re fascinated. And they see me in those same circumstances.

“I take pride in all my students, but I take a bit more pride when I see my study abroad students later, walking at graduation.”

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