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This aerial view of Munich was taken from the tower of St. Peter’s Church in the city square. St. Peter’s, known locally as “Alter Peter,” is Munich’s oldest church. The climb to the tower is 306 steps. On our cover: At St. Vitus Cathedral, in Prague.

European Experience Enriches Seminar

A European Heritage tour designed in association with the Honors Program provided 21 St. Norbert College students an 11-day adventure through Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. 

The J-Term tour was intended to not only give students an international travel opportunity and a chance to earn college credit, but the opportunity to personally connect with the deeper traditions and heritage of the Norbertine order – the order that laid the path to their current home: St. Norbert College.

For 11 days, students and staff explored castles, Norbertine abbeys and local historical sites, experiencing both the sobering reality of Dachau and the gloriously ornate final resting place of Norbert of Xanten himself. In addition to taking in amazing sights, students engaged with local traditions, languages and customs – gaining new experiences and perspectives while earning academic credit at the same time.

Honors abroad
The heritage tour, a project more than a year in the making, required extensive planning and contact with Norbertine sites in seven cities across Europe. Adventures of varying degrees and types wove through the trip – even before it began. Sub-arctic temperatures and inclement weather delayed departing flights for students, faculty and staff as the polar vortex passed through the Midwest in early January. 

Once assembled in Munich, their starting point, the group explored the city and then traveled to the Nazi work camp of Dachau.  

Their first encounter with European Norbertine communities came with a two-night stay in the abbey at Roggenburg, Germany. From there the group toured Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, the castle homes of the Bavarian king Ludwig II.  

A six-hour bus trip took the group next to the abbey in Geras, Austria, and to nearby Ulm. Students enjoyed Mass at the abbey, as well as the radical hospitality of the Norbertines in residence. They joined the community for vespers (evening prayers) as part of their overnight stay. The following day the group moved on to Schlagl, another Austrian abbey, where they again had the opportunity to engage with and learn about the local Norbertines. 

The next leg of the tour took the group to the Czech Republic. At Strahov Abbey in Prague, the students visited the tomb of Norbert of Xanten. The Rev. Jay Fostner, O.Praem., ’84 (Mission & Student Affairs), traveling with the group, was able to celebrate Mass for the St. Norbert College contingent at the final resting place of the reforming 12th-century priest in whose honor their school was named. 

After a tour of Strahov and an evening at leisure in Prague, the expedition continued with a guided tour of the city and its Jewish quarter. The following day saw a trip to Doksany, home to a community of cloistered Norbertine nuns. Their convent was heavily damaged during the Communist regime and is being restored by its residents. 

Back in Prague, the cultural feast of that evening was a high point of the trip: music, dancing and laughter enjoyed by all. 

Through student eyes
Throughout their journey, students kept journals of their experiences, also convening regularly to reflect upon and discuss what they’d seen and learned from various people and places.

Hannah Kestly ’16, an elementary education major from Pulaski, Wis., says she first learned about the tour during an all-honors-student meeting last year, as new course offerings for the upcoming semester were described. While studying abroad is an option for education students despite their rigid schedule, deciding to triple-minor had made Kestly question the viability of taking a full semester of travel. She had never traveled internationally, but she still wasn’t sure she could squeeze in a study-abroad experience.

Kestly’s favorite experiences derived, she believes, from her love of old things. She described her amazement at the construction of the Bavarian castles and abbeys at periods when technology was more limited. Her love of the cobblestone streets of Prague made the pages of her journal, too. Her increased knowledge of Norbert of Xanten himself came from seeing how his influence spread through Europe and hearing how the Norbertines of each abbey recounted his story – as well as learning about the significance of his enduring influence at each location. 

Another reflection of her experiences at the various Norbertine abbeys? “They’re all cold!’ she exclaims, saying that, much of the time during their visits, fellow students kept their jackets and gloves on. (Marcie Paul, director of the Honors Program and professor of modern languages and literature at the college, reinforces Kestly’s experience, describing in her own blog how Fostner’s breath was visible while celebrating Mass at St. Norbert’s tomb.)

Kestly also says how certain remembrances of her adventure – her photographs of Dachau among them – won’t be shared with the world via social media. “It feels kinda wrong,” she explains, and points out the irony of her experience at a place where the scenery was “so beautiful, despite what happened there.”

From the experience of radical hospitality at a small restaurant in Austria that hosted 25 weary and hungry Americans, to access to the treasured libraries in Strahov; from experiencing communio with Norbertine priests of other nationalities, to congregating with new friends around the statue of St. Norbert on the Charles Bridge in Prague, the tour served as a bridge between past and current manifestations of the legacy of Norbert.

New perspectives offered in threes
The trip served as an honors tutorial, a relatively new and popular option for honors students at St. Norbert. Honors tutorials include special-topics mini-courses that are three weeks in length. Students take three tutorials in the place of a traditional semester-long honors course. Whether studying grant-seeking via instruction from Sarah Ryan (Institutional Effectiveness) or learning about Irish folk heroes from native Irishman Jamie O’Brien (Business Administration), these abbreviated courses provide a way for both students and professors to explore subjects of personal interest that may be tangential to their usual area of study.

Our contributor reflects
Author Katie Ourada ’05 serves the college as an admissions counselor in the division of enrollment management and communications, and is a regular contributor to this and other college publications. Ourada, who studied abroad in Europe when she herself was a student at St. Norbert, reflects.

“For all of us, even the most forgetful, there are memories that transport us to a single moment in our lives. Memories that bring back the sights, smells, sounds and emotions experienced in that fleeting moment. For many of us, these moments are carved out of deeply personal experiences, such as a fantastic date, the exchange of vows, the birth of a child, witnessing something remarkable or traveling to amazing places. 

“One such memory for me comes when I recall my departure from Venice, 10 years ago this past November. I sat in a water shuttle, leaning my head against the Plexiglas window, staring out at the shrinking light of the setting sun: bursts of orange and pink exploding from deepening lilac sky, the light twinkling across the steady rippling waves of the harbor. Even now I can feel the swelling ache in my chest as the solemnity of that moment – a moment of personal quiet peacefulness – drowned out the chatter and noise of the other passengers sharing the mass transit system of Venice. I recall the resounding churning of the engine of the boat, the metal of the hull reverberating against my shoulder. 

“A two-day guided tour of Venice was not the pinnacle of a four-month adventure in Italy. It was not the most exciting nor the most beautiful destination to which I traveled. It was not the gutsiest, nor the most self-awakening thing I experienced. It was, however, one of the moments in my life, like saying my own wedding vows and holding my newborn daughters, that I mentally cataloged in detail and revisit from time to time because of the way it made me feel: alive, content and grateful.

“One of the hallmarks of the St. Norbert College experience is the ability and encouragement to travel while a student at SNC. They even tell students, tongue-in-cheek, to ‘please go away.’ (That’s the motto of the Study Abroad office.) Whether through a traditional semester abroad, through participation in T.R.I.P.S., or through a research excursion organized by one of several academic departments or clubs, students have the opportunity and support to make travel a reality.”

Feb. 4, 2014