Toni Jones’ interest in studying abroad began at Clary Middle School in Syracuse. “In class we learned a lot about Mexico. I became very interested in Yucatan and decided I’d love to go there some day.” Her passion for traveling and learning brought Jones to Onondaga Community College where she has taken three study abroad trips. “I’m very interested in learning about people and culture. I’m so excited OCC offers these opportunities.”
Jones’ personal journey to a college campus has been a lengthy one. She graduated from Corcoran High School in 1998 and went to work. “I wanted to go to college but never felt I was ready. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and needed to figure things out.” After spending several years in child care Jones decided she wanted to work with adults with disabilities. She is now a Direct Support Professional at Access CNY, formerly known as Enable, where she’s worked since 2006.
Three years ago Jones decided to give OCC a try. “I had a son (now age 12), I bought a house and I did it all as a single person. Once my life became stable I decided the time was right to invest in myself.” Jones began taking classes in the fall of 2012. She excelled while majoring in Humanities and Social Sciences with an Honors minor, earning induction into the international honor society Phi Theta Kappa.
During her first semester she saw a sign promoting an upcoming study abroad trip to central Mexico. She signed up, went on the trip during semester break and it changed her life. “It opened my mind to a lot of things. It was interesting to see things first-hand. The poverty really impacted me. I saw people who worked just as hard as me if not harder and didn’t have nearly what I had. It was very eye opening.”
Jones says the highlight of the trip was a visit to the community of Santa Rita. She and fellow classmates spent the afternoon playing outside with children who had grown up in poverty and owned little more than the clothes on their backs. “It struck me they had so little but were so happy. It was a reminder about how much we take for granted.”
After returning to campus Jones began recruiting students for future study abroad trips. She spoke in classes regularly, sharing her stories and experiences. She also became active in the Social Science department, doing work study there.
“She’s a remarkable lady,” said OCC History Professor Rick McLain. “She’s extremely engaged. She works with our department, was president of our History Club for three semesters and now serves as an Honorary Officer, volunteered with our Lincoln Exhibit and volunteers with the Onondaga Historical Association. I don’t know how she’s able to do so much here along with everything else in her life. She’s an incredible person and it has been a real pleasure to see her go on these trips.”
McLain and Annie Tuttle, an Assistant Professor of Sociology, oversee the College’s Social Science study abroad program, which offered its first trip in 2008 and has continued every year since. “It’s a life-changing experience for students,” said Tuttle. “For many of them it’s their first time leaving the United States. Students build lasting relationships with fellow students and professors and leave OCC with cultural experiences they will always remember.”
The study abroad trips have also had a transformative effect on many students. “I’ve seen several who have become inspired to do much better in class and ultimately pursue higher goals in life,” said McLain. “Completion rates for students who have participated in the program are very high. They are finishing their degrees and going on and getting higher degrees.”
Taking students to Latin American had a significant impact on McLain as well. “Going there as a faculty member changed my life. I had never traveled there prior to coming to OCC. My own professional development was greatly enhanced for teaching World History through not only visiting the magnificent Mayan and Aztec ruins but also through interacting with other faculty members. Faculty learn from each other when we disagree and debate topics. It’s good for students to see us debating in a professional manner.”
Students interested in going on a study abroad trip who need financial assistance can apply for a scholarship through the OCC Foundation . Jones received a scholarship for one of her trips but paid for the other two on her own. “She’s so selfless,” said Tuttle. “She didn’t apply for more scholarships because she wanted other students to have the opportunity to go.”
Two study abroad trips are planned in the upcoming academic year. In March 2016 a group of students will go to India. It will be part of a joint venture with Cornell University and Syracuse University funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. In May McLain will join Professor Tim Scott on a trip to Machu Picchu as part of a Latin America cultural class. You can see student photos from study abroad trips here and here.
McLain hopes the successful study abroad trips happening in the Social Science and Modern Languages disciplines will inspire other departments on campus to consider similar opportunities. “I would love to see Business, Engineering and other areas that could really contribute to building our local community and industry and the job sector get involved too. If students travel to Germany to study engineering or India to study business practices it will only be to their benefit. Any of our students who would go to India and know Hindi would be guaranteed a job because it’s such a rare language. Cultural and language connections would equal a real payoff.”
If anyone needs a student’s perspective on the power of studying abroad, Jones is always willing to share her experiences. “I tell students ‘It changes your life. It makes you see the world like you never saw it before and appreciate what you have here. If you have the opportunity to study abroad, do it!’”