Usefully Useless

I have heard it said that:

“An education is that which remains after you have forgotten everything you learned in college”

This is an interesting quote considering the amount of discussion that goes on in departments about the “importance” of the classes that students are required to take.  There is a debate between the sciences and humanities.  Which will better prepare you for the “Real World” everyone is eventually headed to?  What is more useful?

Professors talk about the syllabus, tests, readings, and homework sets that make their class more effective, more useful than that other disciplines courses.  Hours and hours are spent grading these endless assignments in order to provide effective feedback to students in an attempt to facilitate learning.  Is this time well spent?  Are these the right discussions to be having?

Assuming the role of the university is to provide an education, and assuming that you, the reader, agree with the quote above the debate of Useful vs. Useless takes on new meaning.  If you still have an education after forgetting everything you ever “learned” what remains?  It can’t be the knowledge that was the topic of the useful vs. useless debate at your university.  You forgot that.

Perhaps what remains is the confidence that you can learn something.  Rector Loprieno of the University of Basel shared that while a particular course of study may be deemed Useless by outsiders or industry an individual participating often comes away having retained something Useful.

What is it that separates the Useless from the Useful?  What and who defines that which is called Useful?  And knowing that Useful things often emerge from seemingly Useless exercises how should the university respond to the Useful vs. Useless debate?

Global Perspectives: Leg 2

Zurich->Basel->Strasbourg->Basel->Riva S. Vitale->Milan->Belenzona->Lugano->Riva S. Vitale

My arrival in Zurich on the morning of May 26th marked the official beginning of the Global Perspectives Program (GPP) and my exploration of European systems of higher education.  My bike, kit, and sleeping bag were stowed safely in the basement of hotel St. Joseph.  My bags were repacked to expose the khakis, collared shirts, and dress shoes I would be needing for the next week and a half.  And after a hot shower, good deal of scrubbing, and a quick nap it became hard to tell that I had just spent a week traveling by bike through the rain in Bayern.

The program consisted of 13 participants, Justin Shanks (logistical guru), and Dean Karen DePauw (Mastermind of the program).  I was the second youngest of the team at 24 years old and one of the two master’s students represented in the group.  The majority of the team was comprised of Doctoral candidates and Post-Docs from a wide range of departments at Virginia Tech and none of us except perhaps Justin and Dean DePauw knew in full the amazing journey we were about to embark upon.   Sunday was devoted to sharing our goals, transitioning, and preparing for the pace of the program.

Over the next 11 days we traveled Switzerland, France, and Italy by train, bus, and foot in search of a more global perspective on higher education.  We learned that an international perspective is a limited viewpoint.  What we were looking for was something bigger, something more holistic, something more relevant in today’s interconnected society.  Being in such communicative proximity with all our neighbors now more than ever makes having a global perspective important as we try to make sense of the impacts our decisions will ultimately make on those around us.

Our meetings with students, staff, and Rectors from more than eight universities and intense interactions with the students from the University of Basel helped to shape these new perspectives.  The informal interactions that arose during meals, down time, and personal excursions added to the depth and power of the program as each of the participants were allowed to explore their own passions.

What I learned more than anything is that each system is unique, they each have their own focus, strengths, and weaknesses.  None of these characteristics make any one system particularly better or worse than another.  They just make them different.  They simply challenge you to examine them, without comparing, from a vantage point that is different from any you have previously stood upon.  These explorations let us—the participants of the program—return to our own system with a new set of experiences and a more holistic understanding of the global system we are all a part of.  We can then examine our own system through a newly crafted lens.  One that might allow us to more effectively adapt our own systems to the quickly changing and continuously evolving world we live in.

The expeditionary part of the program came to an end before you realized what happened and each participant trickled away from the Villa in in their own ways.  It had been a place and a space with a feeling of home.  I left with a sense of awe at what we had seen and experienced, a sense of gratitude towards those who accompanied me on that journey, and a sense of respect for each participant’s ability to teach, share, and live as a tight knit community for the time we were together.  I learned a great deal, met some amazing people, and could not have imagined a better way to spend the beginning of the summer of 2013.  Thank you.

For anyone interested a more detailed description of my journeys explore: leg 1 and leg 3.

Global Perspectives: Leg 3

Riva S. Vitale->Lugano->Lake Lugano->Zuirch->Dublin->Banbridge->Glaskar->Dublin

10:00am on Thursday June 6th marked our departure from the Villa and the beginning of leg 3.  The structured and well thought out itinerary had come to a close and I had a week to get myself to Dublin and do something interesting, exciting, and fun in between.

I took a train to Lugano with four other participants under the hopeful assumption that we might be able to rent a sailboat for the afternoon.  The morning looked cold, foggy, and not very hopeful but the crew of Kevin, Kat, Kelsey, and Angela stepped up and said they were in if it worked so off we went.  Right around noon the weather cleared, the wind picked up, and after a conversation—mostly done through hand gestures—with a man who could only speak Italian we found ourselves sailing away from Lugano towards the Italian Cliffs on the far side.  We hadn’t been asked to pay or even leave any type of collateral and without having a common language we had managed to gain the trust of the employee at the wharf.  The afternoon was great and the crew dispite their claims to have little to no sailing experience did a great job of manning our 18’ Violeto and I got to relax on the front deck.  The wind died a bit on the way back but we all managed to catch our connecting trains with a few minutes to spare.

A train to Zurich, a picnic on the banks of Lake Zurich with a thunderstorm over the alps in the distance, and an evening at the City Backpacker all followed our sailing excursion and on Friday morning I found myself doing the airport thing again with my bike to prep for a quick hop over to Dublin.  From the Airport I took a bus to Banbridge, had an adventure to find some pounds, and jumped on the bike for 15 km with only an address to guide me to 17 Glaskar rd. where I was supposed to find my sister and her friend’s relatives.

Against the odds I made it and got a good view of back roads of Northern Ireland in the process.  I was met at the door by Garrett, who laughed a bit at my appearance and then said he was expecting me and invited me in.  I was put up in the “grannie” flat and had my own bathroom.  This house which was connected to a 30,000 chicken operation and horse boarding farm was to be my home base until Tuesday.

I cleaned up helped cook the first of many wonderful meals and waited for my sister and the rest of the girls to return from their adventure to Belfast.  It was great to catch up with Marybeth and the evening was spent outside over a great meal, good wine, and a bit of “buskin” music.  The next day I did a quick 50 km ride, ate, and ate, and then went to a family gathering where we again ate and drank and ate and drank.  We danced till the sun came up and took a taxi back home where I was employed to break into the house because we had forgotten the keys.  Slumber consumed most of the next day but on Monday I got out again and did a 105 km ride that circumnavigated the Moore Mountains on the Eastern Coast.  I saw the green castle, ran through a farmer’s field when my dirt road dead ended and hit 80km/hr on a downhill between Hilltown and Rathfrieland.  I cleaned up and again we ate, drank, and danced in celebration of the wonderful time we had on the Fletcher’s Farm.  The next morning I caught a bus to Dublin with Marybeth and Shannon.

The bike ride from the airport into Dublin was fun, not direct, and longer than expected but I got there eventually and settled into the hostel Killian for two nights.  Night one was spent at a “Steeple Session” Listening to Mark Hayes and a Celtic Singer perform in a Unitarian Church.  Night two was spent listing to a traditional Irish jam session at the Cobblestone pub away from the touristy part of town.  At one point there were 4 fiddles, 2 Irish flutes, a Lyre, two banjos, a bagpipe of somekind, and an accordion playing together.  It was great.

The trip home the next morning was relatively uneventful and when mom and dad met me in the airport I was excited to finally be home.  I am quite a few steps closer on the never ending path to gain a global perspective and all the better for the steps that I’ve taken.

-To all those who helped in any capacity along my journey.  Thank you for making it all possible.

Global Perspectives: Leg 1

Blacksburg->Poconos->NewYork->Dublin->Frankfurt->Wurzberg->Kirchberg->Augsberg->Kempton->Zurich

Before it began I drove from Blacksburg, VA to Pocono Lake, PA where over two days I gathered the necessary gear, packed and rested.  On the morning of May 20th, 2013 my bike, my gear, my father, and I loaded into the pickup truck and drove towards JFK Airport.

The traffic was mild by New York standards and I was dropped on at JFK 3.5 hrs before departure.  Laden with two Orlieb panniers, a Rack Pack, and pushing my Trek up to the check in counter caught a few peoples attention.  The man at the desk was unfamiliar with Air Lingus’ Bike Policy but before long I had secured a personal escort to see my bike through the airport. Thirty minutes later the Trek and I bid farewell at the gate to meet again in Frankfurt 28 hours later.

The plane brought me to Dublin and a quick bus and train ride turned my 8 hour layover into a meeting with my sister over a wonderful Irish breakfast in Center City Dublin.  The next flight, delayed slightly, brought me to Frankfurt where I anxiously awaited the arrival of the Trek on the oversized baggage conveyer.  She arrived and I quickly set about assembling her for the eminent and ambitious adventure.  But alas the last train to Wurzberg that evening had no bike car.

Before long we scored a bench in a quiet corner that didn’t have armrests.  It was an ideal mattress and with bike chained up and valuables under my head I settled in for the night.

The 5:00am wake up and following train ride ferried us to Wurzburg via some beautiful mountain passes and an in-transit clothing change had us ready to ride upon our 9:00am arrival.

The day was long but the riding beautiful.  I felt free and route took me through fields, woods, villages, and towns via bike paths and roads that each had their own distinct feel.  The destination emerged as Kirchberg an der Jangt around lunch time.  As a small town no one had heard of getting there with limited access to maps was a bit of a challenge.  My journey took me through high farmland that had an eerie resemblance to central Pennsylvania with the exception of the language on the road signs.

After 7 hrs in the saddle and 130 km I descended in to the Jangst valley and saw Kirchberg emerge from behind the trees.  The welcome I got filled my weary body with joy and when they showed me my bed I couldn’t contain it.  The generosity of the Holtz family was heart touching.  I showed quickly and then joined a local German family in a meal, history lesson, and tour of the area before enjoying a pint or two at the local pub.  I fell into bed that evening exhausted but with a grin on my face.  This was going to be a grand adventure.

The next morning after breakfast, again with the Holtz’s, I saddled up and headed towards Creilsheim the next large town on my route.  The plan was to ride about 100 km that day but my knees had other plans and the decision to take a short cut 30 minutes into the ride resulted in an amazing 4 hour adventure in the jangst river valley.  My bike, my gear, and me rode, walked, and carried ourselves through a combination of dirt bike paths, farmers fields, old mill words, and beautiful bridges on the Radweg an der Jangst.  A gorgeous trail but not one intended for bikes loaded down with 40 lbs of gear.

I made up for lost time by catching a train from Creilsheim to Augsberg where I moved on to the next host in an apartment on the south end of town.  Again I was greeted with enthusiasm allowed to shower and provided a free dinner.  The conversation this evening was in English but getting to know Tobi and Naira and hear their stories about studying in Germany and Brazil and their adventures as couchsurfers around the world made my excursion sound a bit more reasonable.  I slept in the next morning and then bid them farewell after being laden with snacks for the day to curb my hunger on the way to Kempton.

My knees encouraged me to take a train most of the way to Kempton and when I arrived I meet my final host at a gas station on the edge of town.  It was raining, cold, and my only correspondence with Michael had been two emails and a 30 second phone conversation.  My bike was too big for his car so he told me to follow him to his house on my bike.  We turned down a highway hung a right and then started up a hill where he quickly started to pull away from me.  My mind was wondering where we were going right about when Michael hung a right onto a dirt road that lead to a farm house on the edge of a field.  Couchsurfing for the win.

The next two days were spent with the Family Ott on their Dairy farm on the outskirts of Kempton in the Allgau region of Bayern.  I joined them for meals, got a tour of the local town and attended a barn party Friday evening that had live music and about 1000 people dancing and singing along.

A last minute decision to spend one final evening with the Ott’s proved for the best as the train ride to Zurich revealed that the previously abandoned bike route would have included snow covered descents that morning.  The rest of the trip to Zurich, by train, marked the end of the first leg of my journey.  The snow-capped foothills passing by the windows helped me begin to transition to phase two of the journey.  It was time to pack up the spandex and break out the khakis

You can check out some photos from the trip here