Traveling and Learning: The Study Abroad Experience

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.”

Toni Jones
Toni Jones

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.

Professors Rick McLain (left) and Annie Tuttle (right) oversee the College's Study Abroad program .
Professors Rick McLain (left) and Annie Tuttle (right) oversee the College’s Study Abroad program .

“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.”

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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!’”

Meet The Faculty: Annie Tuttle

Annie Tuttle, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology

Hometown: Arlington, Texas

Education: B.A., Sociology and Political Science, University of Texas at Arlington; M.S., Sociology, Florida State University; Ph.D., Sociology, Florida State University.

History at OCC: I joined the faculty in fall 2011 and quickly found an academic home at OCC and a community in Syracuse. I have been part of many committees on campus including the Faculty Executive Committee, Women’s History Month, Women and Gender Studies, Honors, LGBTQ, and International Education. I am also the faculty advisor for OCC’s chapter of Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society.  I work closely with Jackie Barstow and several other advising partners to provide research, service, and scholarship opportunities for high achieving students at OCC. We have helped many PTK members transfer to schools such as Cornell, NYU, RIT, and Syracuse University.  Our chapter was named the Most Distinguished Chapter in New York in 2013-2014, and we are very excited to have one of our members represent OCC on the state level as a PTK New York Regional Officer for 2015. This past year I also took part in the Social Sciences Mayan Riviera Study Abroad program where I taught a section of Gender and Society and travelled with students throughout the Southern Yucatan.  I teach Introduction to Sociology, Social Problems, Gender and Society, Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies, and Environmental Sociology.

Favorite Student Story: During my first year at OCC I had a student in my class who was a mother of four with a fifth child on the way. She was one of the smartest students in my class and was always on time and prepared. After class one day we were talking about an upcoming assignment and I commented on how smart she was and that I was looking forward to reading her paper. She instantly started crying, hugged me, and told me that no one had ever told her that she was smart. The littlest things we say to students can make the biggest impact.  At the end of the semester she earned an “A” in my class and had a new baby girl. Her story reminds me how much every day interactions matter.

Little-Known Fact: I am an identical twin! My twin sister, Ali, lives in Texas with her husband and two kids. We spend a lot of time together… on FaceTime!  I also love Broadway musicals and I can often be found listening to musical theatre in my office, car, at home, and even at the gym.

Meaningful Experiences Outside Education: I am on the LGBTQ Board at Vera House, which assesses the needs and creates outreach opportunities for the LGBTQ community in Syracuse.  I also love to travel and make every effort to visit friends across the country during the year and explore new places, both nationally and internationally.

Gratitude: I really love my job. I feel so fortunate to have a job that I am passionate about and one that I feel allows me the opportunity to make a difference. I am inspired by my students and colleagues and am excited to see what the next few years have in store for Onondaga.

OCC’s Best Honored in Albany

Two of OCC’s best and brightest students were honored for their academic excellence and community service Monday, March 9 in Albany. Alena Cerro and Greg Frietag represented the College at the USA Today Phi Theta Kappa All-New York Academic Team Recognition Ceremony at the New York State Museum. SUNY Community College students from across the state were singled out for their achievements.

Students and family members in attendance were treated to inspirational remarks from SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher and Dr. Rod A. Risley, Executive Director of Phi Theta Kappa, the student honor society for two-year college students. During the ceremony each student was called up individually, presented an honorary medal and photographed with Zimpher and Risley.

Four of Central New York’s elected representatives came to the museum to congratulate Cerro and Freitag including: Assemblyman William Magnarelli (D, 129th District), Assemblyman Sam Roberts (D, 128th District), Assemblyman Al Stirpe (D, 129th District) and Senator Dave Valesky (D, 53rd District).

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Following the event Cerro and Frietag were escorted to the New York State Assembly chambers were they were singled out for their accomplishments. Assemblyman Al Stirpe, a Democrat representing the 127th District told his colleagues about Cerro and Freitag’s achievements:

  • “Alena Cerro is an Electronic Media Communications major at Onondaga Community College. She is vice president for public relations for the College’s Alpha Sigma Zeta chapter. Cerro also serves as an Honors Program Student Ambassador and Honors Program Committee Student Representative. Cerro has earned President’s List status each semester on campus, received numerous scholarships and awards and participated in service learning projects. She is an intern in OCC’s External Relations and Marketing & New Media departments. Cerro is a 2013 graduate of Liverpool High School.”
  •  “Greg Freitag is a Hospitality Management major at Onondaga Community College. He has maintained a 4.0 GPA while volunteering for campus events, working several jobs and raising seven children. Freitag works full time on the overnight shift as a Plant Utilities Engineer at SUNY Upstate Medical University. He also works in the hospitality industry at the Courtyard by Marriott in Armory Square where he has been named employee of the month. In 2014 Freitag medaled in the Empire State Games Track & Field competition. This summer he will be one of 12,000 participants in the National Senior Games in Minneapolis. Freitag is a 1977 graduate of Olympia High School in Greece, New York.”

William Magnarelli, a Democrat representing the 129th District also addressed fellow colleagues. “Alena is a young lady with her whole future in front of her. Greg’s accomplishments are remarkable as well. Both of them are to be commended and I wish them the best in their future endeavors.” When Magnarelli finished speaking members of the Assembly applauded Cerro and Freitag.

The day of recognition was greatly appreciated by Cerro and Freitag.

Alena Cerro
Alena Cerro
Greg Freitag
Greg Freitag

“I couldn’t have asked for a better experience. It’s an honor to be able to accept this award on behalf of my college and the mentors who have nominated me for it. It’s just such a special day. I’m so lucky to be here,” Cerro said.


“I am overwhelmed. I think of myself as such a regular guy, not someone who’s worthy of all the attention that’s been given me. It’s all been a great honor and an extreme pleasure,” Freitag said.