Crossroads of the Mediterranean
Study Abroad and Service-Learning in Malta with Luther College
Article and photos by Brian Liesinger
| A view of the capital city of Valletta, Malta from across the harbor.
“Malta? Where is that?”
I had grown tired of answering the question shortly after returning from my semester in the country. But the question still arises, and I do my best to answer considerately and politely. I tell people that it is an island nation about 60 miles south of Sicily—right in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Yes, it is a small country, with just over 400,000 people living on about 120 square miles. But what it lacks in population and landmass, it more than makes up for in history, culture, and beauty.
From there, I am tempted to brag about Malta’s 7,000 years of occupied history, temples that are older than the pyramids and Stonehenge, the country’s bold stance against the Axis powers in WWII, Caravaggio’s stint there, the baroque architecture, the North African and Italian influences that have shaped the culture, and, of course, the breath-taking seascapes. Instead, I usually bite my tongue—for fear that this jewel of the Mediterranean will become overrun by American tourists. But now, as a graduate student and an employee of a study abroad office, I am willing to rattle on about it to any student who will listen.
Malta was a great choice for me as an undergraduate because I had never been abroad before. I was fascinated with their Arabic-based language, though relieved that English is also an official language and all courses at the University of Malta are taught in English. It is also an interesting place to study journalism, given its location and the influences of North Africa and Western Europe. I found my international journalism courses at the University of Malta to be incredibly challenging and rewarding. I also took culture and history courses and signed on for a service-learning experience that changed my life in ways I could not have imagined before I arrived.
A Brief History of Malta
Malta's location in the Mediterranean Sea has made it a convenient crossroads for conquerors ever since the Phoenicians arrived in around 800 BC. The Romans eventually absorbed Malta as part of their empire, beginning a chain of conquests that included Arabs from North African, Sicilians, the Napolean-led French, and the British. Malta achieved its independence in 1964 and joined the European Union in 2004.
Malta’s modern immigrants, however, are of a very different sort. Shortly after moving to Malta, I became aware of a huge influx of African refugees. Fleeing unstable economies and unsafe situations, Africans have been risking a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea for a better life in Europe. While few of them actually set out for Malta, the vessels they make the voyage in are often overcrowded and unseaworthy. By the time they enter Maltese waters, the makeshift ships are barely afloat and have to be rescued by the Armed Forces of Malta. I could not imagine how bad it must have been for them to risk death—and many do die along the way—to escape the atrocities of their homelands.
These are the circumstances that brought Hamza, Mustapha, and I together. Hamza, who was 13 at the time, and Mustapha, who was 15, arrived in Malta with their parents in 2000 from Sierra Leone. They were displaced from their hometown—ironically named Freetown—in the late ‘90s due to the civil war and eventually fled for Europe. With the assistance of the Jesuit Refugee Service, they had settled into a flat in Floriana, near the capital city Valletta. Katrine Camilleri of the Jesuit Refugee Service set up my service-learning assignment with this displaced family. I was charged with the task of teaching the boys English.
Language was a barrier at first and so was my lack of teaching experience. There were no lesson plans, no teacher’s guides, and no one there to mediate. Their parents both had jobs, and their mother, Mary, also took courses of her own in the evenings. Hamza had the benefit of some schooling, so he had a decent foundation in English. Mustapha, however, understood little of what I said. Overcoming my initial trepidation, I did my best to assess their skill levels and devised a basic curriculum that started with speech, spelling, and reading comprehension. Being eager students, they wanted even more, so we added basic math to our lessons. I was able to meet with them about twice a week. When I left town for program-sponsored excursions, I assigned them vocabulary and multiplication flashcards to study. They were ideal students: attentive, respectful, and always giving their best effort. We never held “class” for a set time; we just worked until I had exhausted all the activities I could think of. On these afternoons, the time flew by.
When the semester ended, we said our goodbyes, and I encouraged them to build on the progress they had made. It was amazing to be able to recognize the improvement in their English even after just a few months with them. The entire family was excessively thankful, despite my feeble teaching skills.
My time with Hamza and Mustapha taught me that service does not have to feel like work, and that it does not take a monumental effort. Doing my little part to help someone else gave me a sense of purpose and the feeling that, while I wasn’t changing the world, I was having a positive effect on their world. I also learned how to connect with people from a culture that was drastically different from my own. It did not feel like a service at all; I felt like the one being educated.
| The family of the two boys to whom the author taught English. Mustapha is in the front, and Hamza is on the far right.
* * *
My crash course in teaching English to Hamza and Mustapha gave me the confidence to apply for a position teaching English in Japan shortly after graduation. And it was those first eye-opening adventures in Malta that fueled my desire to see more of the world and engage new cultures. I spent two years in Japan before returning to the U.S. I now work in a study abroad office encouraging other students to enrich their educations with a learning abroad experience.
The University Of Malta
The University of Malta is a top-notch European educational institution. In general, instructors there expect more out of students than their American counterparts. Syllabi aren’t structured to walk you through every minute of course time in a semester. You are expected to cover the reading list on your own and come to class prepared to participate. Exams are a rarity, especially in the arts and humanities courses. Final papers and projects are often assigned early in the semester for these areas. Due to the country's immigration and refugee issues, it is a particularly interesting place to study refugee and asylum law, human rights, and public policy.
The student population is diverse, so it’s easy to meet other international students, especially if you live in the University Residences. Make an effort to engage Maltese students as well. The Maltese are generally more reserved, but once you gain their trust, you will find that they are incredibly friendly and honest.
While my program was organized by Luther College, a small liberal arts school, it is possible to enroll directly at the University of Malta as an international student. The University's course offerings also match up relatively well with the courses offered on most U.S. campuses. In addition, an organization called International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP: www.isep.org) offers an exchange program to the University of Malta.
One of the best things about studying in Malta now is its affordability. Depending on what you pay for tuition at your home institution, the University of Malta may cost considerably less. Academic year tuition for international students ranges from about $7000 to $9,000, which is a great value for the quality of the education. Living expenses are roughly $3,000 per semester (based on current exchange rates), including lodging at the University Residences. The University Residences will put you in touch with the international student community and are close to campus, but renting an apartment is also worth considering. By living in a flat, I was able to integrate into a neighborhood. There was a local store, a pub to frequent, a gym that offered discount memberships to students, and friendly neighbors to socialize with. Plus, if you are able to locate a few roommates, sharing a 3–4 bedroom apartment can save you a considerable amount of cash on accommodations. Avoiding the areas of Valletta, Sliema, and St. Julian's will also lead you to lower monthly rates.
Public transit on the island is incredibly affordable, and due to the small size of the island, your longest ride would be about an hour. Basic bus fares are less than a dollar. One, three, five, and seven-day passes are also available. The buses are a great way to explore the island and a cultural icon of Malta. Pay a flat fee and ride around all day, taking in the landscape and chatting with the Maltese. Keep in mind, however, that the public transit system, while fairly extensive, is not always the most consistent, especially on the island of Gozo. Study schedules carefully and ask the drivers questions. An alternative to the buses in Valletta and the surrounding area are eco-friendly CT Cabs. These electric vehicles roam around the perimeter of the capital city and can be hailed like any taxi. Currently, the cost of a fare is a flat fee of €2 per person.
With Italian, Spanish, Moorish, and even British influences, the Maltese cuisine is diverse and delectable, but it can also be quite expensive in the higher-end restaurants. To save on meals, avoid regular splurges and stick with the local standards: ftira bread filled with whatever is in season. Pastries called pastizzi, often filled with ricotta and peas, are also a local favorite that is widely available, delicious, and cheap. You will find these and many other baked goods for affordable prices at bakeries all over the islands. The climate also allows for a long growing season, so take advantage of fruits and vegetables in season. Farmers load up their trucks and set up curbside stands to sell their produce for a fraction of what the supermarkets charge.
Travel in Malta
Despite seeming isolated, it is relatively inexpensive to travel to mainland Europe from Malta. Catch a high-speed ferry to Sicily and choose trains or planes from there. The cheap, adventurous train route from Sicily to Rome is well worth it, if you have the time. From Rome you can catch affordable airfare to other European destinations or continue your train ride north. Do not overlook Malta, however. This archipelago is packed with fascinating sites. Trust me: it takes more than an entire semester to see them all.
| The jagged Maltese coastline.