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RISD Travel Course: “Switzerland + Beyond”

A Glimpse at Some of the Great Art and Architecture in Europe

Venice Colmar. Alsace
Venice, Italy. Colmar, Alsace.

Reconnecting with Europe

The radiant, neon lights of New York City still flashing in my mind, I almost stood in awe of the tranquility of Lucerne. The serene Swiss town is my birthplace, and yet after four years at Columbia University, I had somewhat disconnected with Europe. It was thus that I decided to re-immerse myself in my heritage and take a travel course, “Switzerland + Beyond,” offered by the Rhode Island School of Design.

What is a Travel Course?

A travel course should not be mistaken for a conventional study abroad program. Though there are certainly similarities between the two, here are some essential points to consider:

  • A travel course follows a fixed itinerary, while a study abroad program is usually based in one location. Using this location as your base, you can travel to other points of interest, either with the program or on your own.
  • In most cases, travel courses take place outside the fall or spring semesters (i.e. in the summer, during winter session, or even spring break).
  • Not only are travel courses usually shorter than those of the traditional semester, but since you are traveling, you will see selected places on your itinerary.
  • A study abroad semester, in contrast, will offer you a more authentic immersion. This is especially important if you want to learn the local language and/or intern, work, or volunteer abroad.
  • Study abroad courses, though they frequently visit local sites, are usually held in a conventional classroom settings, perhaps at local universities. In travel courses, discussions could take place on a bus or as part of a guided city tour, for example. 
  • A travel course will most likely involve only one professor with a group of students. It is advisable to get to know the professor before signing up for the trip.
  • Some home institutions may offer courses that involve an organized trip to another country, frequently during spring break.
  • Prerequisites for travel courses will vary just as they do for study abroad. While some courses require a certain language level, others might ask for a high G.P.A. The RISD course is open to all.

The RISD Travel Course

The itinerary of the course varies from year to year, but it was in this case as the title suggests: “Switzerland + Beyond.” For us, this meant a round-trip starting in Basel and ending in Zurich. On the way, we traveled to St. Moritz, the Therme Vals, Winterthur, Weil am Rhein (Germany), Colmar (France) and stopped for a day in Venice (Italy). Given that one could spend months in Venice studying art and architecture, the 2-week trip was rather packed and unfortunately, a bit rushed. A lot of time was spent on a bus rather than really experiencing actual cities and the local life.

Basel, Switzerland, Fireworks Basel, Switzerland, Sunset
Fireworks in Basel, Switzerland. Sunset in Basel.

Academically, the course was more like a tour than a class. Apart from the final presentation of projects, which involved a travelogue and a T-shirt design, there were no group discussions about the visited sites and meetings with the professor were limited to two, 15-minute conversations on the bus. There is, however, ample room for creativity in the projects and travelogues can range from annotated Moleskine diaries to online blogs. RISD is known for creativity, after all.

Tips for Travel Switzerland (…and Beyond)

  • Switzerland is very expensive. This even includes fast food chains. Less expensive options include preparing food bought at a supermarket, such as Coop, Migros or Globus. If staying at a hotel with a breakfast buffet, try to make a sandwich to go. Also, if it can wait, consider buying things when you travel to Germany, Italy, or France.  
  • Similarly, take advantage of free events. During our trip, we enjoyed spectacular fireworks on the Swiss National Day (August 1st) and the Zurich street parade.
  • Tickets for public transportation are included when staying at some hotels, ask at the reception.
  • Though the focus of the course is not on language learning, it never hurts to know a few phrases. Ask the professor or read the section in your guidebook – just be aware that Swiss German is a dialect different from German German!
  • Pack light and in layers. You will be visiting various locations in different countries and altitudes. A rain jacket is also never a bad idea.
  • Particularly in Venice, bring cover-ups to visit churches. We did not know this requirement and had to buy paper scarves to wrap around our waists and shoulders.
  • It is also advisable to bring art materials (paints, dyes, glue, etc.) so you do not have to go searching for a long time when completing your coursework.
  • Ultimately, however, don’t worry if you haven’t brought everything you could possibly need. You are going to Europe and can purchase it there.

The Bottom Line

If you are looking to go overseas, make sure a travel course is right for you. Get as much information as possible about the course. It is easy to find out how long it is, but how much of that time is spent on a bus or train as opposed to an actual location? If possible, meet the professor to find out who you will be traveling with - and who will assess your work.

Finally, ensure that you are not mistaking a short travel course for a study abroad semester. If you have never been to Europe and want a first experience of a foreign culture, the former is your best bet. Having studied abroad in Madrid for seven months, I am convinced that if you are looking for a more genuine immersion, a semester, or even a year abroad is the way to go. A travel course, on the other hand, is the perfect alternative for exploring a specific field of interest. And if the first, short visit is successful, you might just want to come back for a longer stay.

For More Information

Rhode Island School of Design offers various travel courses and study abroad programs in Europe.

Columbia University offers an art history travel seminar that includes a one-week trip abroad during Spring Break. The institution’s Earth Institute offers similar courses for both undergraduates and graduates.   

Pace University has extensive travel course offerings, from “The Splendors of Tuscany” to an international management field study in Brazil. The entire list can be found here.

West Carolina University offers not only travel courses abroad, but also within the U.S., such as a biological exploration of Yellowstone National Park.  

Loyola University will take you to Tunisia on a travel course.

UCSD presents a choices every summer in various countries.

Chapman University offers travel courses in eight different countries, as well as international internships.

Note: Course offerings are likely to vary from year to year. To find out about up-to-date travel courses, inquire with the school’s international programs office or directly with certain departments. The anthropology, archeology or language divisions are often good options. In the ever-globalizing environment, however, almost every department is sure to value an experience abroad and perhaps even suggest a way to get there.