Twelve Amherst students escaped winter last month, jetting off to Costa Rica, but unlike some other sunbirds, these young scientists spent their time in the wilderness, for a class.

“They get to see a dry forest, and a cloud forest, and a rainforest. All the while, they’re staying in remote and rustic places. We don’t go to cushy lodges, and we don’t get them distracted by going to the beach,” says Ethan Clotfelter, professor of biology and environmental studies, of the two-week excursion with students in the tropical biology seminar he co-taught with Rachel Levin, senior lecturer in biology and environmental studies.

The trip—fully funded by the College—is part of a new program that sends students on course-specific travel, where they can go deeper into their studies while also making new friends.

This travel initiative, funded through the Dean of the Faculty’s office, also paid to send students to Colombia this winter, and it will pay for trips to Spain and Austria this spring. Now in its fourth year, the initiative funded excursions last year to Istanbul, Puerto Rico and England’s Lake District. Such offerings are made possible with the support of endowed funds dedicated to student and faculty research, including the Edward Hitchcock Fund for Student Research in Environmental Science, the Karl Loewenstein Fellowship in Political Science and Jurisprudence Fund and the Class of 1962 Fund for Academic and Curricular Initiatives.

Clotfelter, Levin and their 12 students started on the Pacific coast, making their way eastward over the Continental Divide. “We essentially blow their minds with the diversity of plants and animals, fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles, mammals,” he says. They stopped at three biologically distinct habitats, where they met with local biologists.

The Colombia trip was organized by Javier Corrales, the Dwight W. Morrow 1895 Professor of Political Science, and Sebastian Bitar, a Karl Loewenstein Fellow and visiting associate professor of political science. It served as the final project for their fall classes, “The Political Economy of Petro States” and “Foreign Policy Analysis,” respectively.

They spent a week in Cartagena, a port city on the Caribbean coast that is home to nearly 1 million people. Students attended classes at the Cartagena campus of the Universidad de los Andes, studying politics, economics, immigration, gender and race. Their itinerary also included visits to historical sites, an Afro-Colombian community and one of the largest oil refineries in South America.

This was the first time Corrales conducted such a trip, and he hopes to make a tradition of it.

“I'm fully behind the idea of internationalizing the curriculum in as many ways as we can. This is one component,” he says. “What’s so great about this is that it combines the opportunity to go abroad with an Amherst College classroom experience.”

For Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein, whose office underwrites such trips as part of a broader initiative to encourage pedagogical experimentation, there’s a deeper agenda: supporting community and diversity.

“Each course is obviously amazing in and of itself, with obvious intellectual benefits,” she says. “But for me, it is actually the social part that is most compelling.”

The trips are one means of bringing together students from diverse backgrounds in meaningful ways.

“We've brought all this amazing diversity to campus,” she says, but it’s not enough to simply form a diverse student body and expect its members to connect with and learn from one another. “We have to do things to make it happen,” Epstein says. “That process of spending 24/7 together really lets you get to know people. Students make friends they’d never expect to make.”

Or, in the words of Diana Daniels ’21, the Colombia trip “gave us not only more insight on the country of Colombia and petrostates but also the opportunity to see the history of a city and bond with a select few students in the class. There were eight students on the trip plus our two professors, and it was a perfect amount.”

Professors are now working out the final details for the Austria and Spain trips.

“We’ve got operas lined up and concerts lined up,” says Christian Rogowski, the G. Armour Craig Professor in Language and Literature in the German department. He and David E. Schneider, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Music, will take 12 students to Vienna as part of their interdisciplinary course “Vienna: City of Music.”

For her course on pilgrimage traditions, Spanish lecturer Carmen Granda will take 12 students to Spain to travel 100-plus kilometers along the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James—a pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where, legend has it, the bones of St. James are buried.

And when they return to Amherst, they’ll be able to apply what they learned. As Ryan Yu ’22 explains: “Hearing lectures about Colombia’s oil production, coupled with a firsthand observation of the immensity of their oil refineries; learning about the cultural paradigms in Latin America while directly immersing ourselves into daily Colombian life; having dinners with a Venezuelan opposition member in the midst of their struggle to re-establish liberal democracy—it represents the perfect complement to the courses we take here at Amherst, allowing us to look beyond the classroom and see how our ideas play out in real life. Trips like these are an irreplaceable experience.”