Mind Travel: Pandemic turns study abroad course into lesson in adaptability

Mind Travel: Pandemic turns study abroad course into lesson in adaptability

I n May—with the coronavirus still raging throughout the world and people confined to home—one Georgia College class found a temporary reprieve through writing.

Travel writing from home replaces trip to Ireland.
Unable to physically travel to Ireland, Dr. Kerry Neville’s creative writing class learned they could explore in unexpected ways—traveling from memory or imagination, viewing their surroundings through fresh lenses. Students revisited past trips, created fantasy worlds and turned ordinary sites, like backyards and kitchens, into portholes of discovery.

Ultimately, the possibilities were as endless as their four walls were constricting.

“Initially, being stuck at home, what is there to write about for a travel piece? It seems like an oxymoron,” said Neville, a creative writing professor and coordinator of the Masters of Fine Arts and Undergraduate Creative Writing Program.

We had to find creative ways to engage in travel, whether it was being more mindful on a walk around the block or relying on powers of invention.
– Dr. Kerry Neville
“We had to find creative ways to engage in travel,” she said, “whether it was being more mindful on a walk around the block or relying on powers of invention.”

When students, staff and faculty were sent home in March, because of COVID-19, Neville was faced with double disappointment. Her carefully-planned classes suddenly went virtual and a long-awaited, student trip to Ireland was canceled. That three-week trip was to be Georgia College’s first study abroad to emphasize creative writing.

Not only did Neville shift and quickly refocus coursework online—but she had to devise a way to turn her new travel writing course—by its very nature something that requires movement—into movement-restricted exercises. 

Dingle Peninsula in Ireland.
Dingle Peninsula in Ireland.

Students would’ve hiked and biked over 100 miles along the western coastal paths of Ireland, staying at bed-and-breakfast inns and boating to the ancient, picturesque Aran Islands in Galway Bay—stopping along the way to write in their journals. In its place, the 12 who took Neville’s reimagined “Travel Writing at Home” course were confined to their imaginations, relishing minute details in their own bedrooms. Instead of meeting Irish writers in person, they studied authors like Meghan Daum, who wrote “What Makes a House a Home?” and Xavier de Maistre who, under house arrest in the 18th century, wrote “A Journey Round my Room.”

Noticing the little things, turns out, is what travel writers do. 

“That’s one of the valuable things outsiders can bring to a culture they’re visiting,” Neville said. “They’re looking with fresh eyes. They’re paying attention in ways that those who live there might take for granted. So, paying attention to where we live, there are things that can surprise us.”

Neville teaching on campus, before COVID-19.
Neville teaching on campus, before COVID-19.
One of Neville’s writing prompts became: “Journey Around Your Bedroom.” Other prompts asked students to sit outside and simply listen for 15 minutes or look out a window and see something they never noticed before.

Neville did this herself, too. During the pandemic, she wrote a travel-at-home piece for Lonely Planet, called “How quarantine gave me a new appreciation for home.” In it, she writes how she knew nothing of the trees and bushes in her yard and set about researching their names. Writing helped Neville let go. She learned to be at peace, while staying put, and even discovered a new friend who thumped against her door. The giant gopher tortoise came unexpectedly into her life—also traveling while sheltering-in-place—at home, in his shell.

This kind of storytelling can be therapeutic. It helped both the professor and her students forget their troubles, at least for a time.

Writing’s a good outlet for stress. It was a way for us to keep telling stories, even though it felt like nothing was happening in the world or in our lives, because we were all staying at home. I looked forward to reading their stories every day. It got me out of my own house and into their worlds.
– Dr. Kerry Neville
 

Senior Jake Dallas reviewing assigned reading at home.
Senior Jake Dallas reviewing assigned reading at home.
One world was that of senior creative writing major Jake Dallas of Sharpsburg, Georgia. At first, Dallas was “bummed out” about losing Ireland. Then, he was skeptical about travel writing from home. It seemed like a “paradox.” But he’d heard good things about Neville’s classes and decided to give it a try. The course gave structure and meaning to his days at home and helped him “grow as a person.” It was a “creative outlet through all the insanity in the world.”

For his final piece, Dallas wrote about a mission trip he took to Jamaica in high school. As he reflected, nagging contradictions about the journey surfaced. He examined expressions of American superiority and condescension toward less-developed countries.

“I had not thought about travel writing as a thing to be done from confinement,” Dallas said. “Of course, that’s not ideal. But there’s a lot of insight that can be taken when you’re by yourself and you’re thinking ... It can be really enlightening.”

I had a great time. It doesn’t replace Ireland, and no one is saying it does. But I will say that this was an incredibly fulfilling experience. This is an experience that matters, and I think I’m the better writer for it.
– Jake Dallas
“I had a great time,” he added. “It doesn’t replace Ireland, and no one is saying it does. But I will say that this was an incredibly fulfilling experience. This is an experience that matters, and I think I’m the better writer for it.”

Junior English major and music minor Kendall Proffitt of Peachtree City, Georgia, also looked to the past for her writing topic. She recalled a trip to the beach with her Grandmother two years ago—the healing of it—during a time of emotional sadness. That period paralleled the frustration she felt with COVID-19, being penned up and kept from following in the footsteps of great Irish writers like W. B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney. Interpreting her memory of the pounding waves and pooling sands was “significant.” It calmed her during the stress of coronavirus too. 

“I thought a travel-from-home course was a great idea,” Proffitt said. “It could never be what our trip would’ve been, but it was a great substitute ... It definitely eased the disappointment a bit and the class, for me, became a wonderful conduit for expression.”

I assumed I would be very frustrated, writing about my limited travels and where I want to go, while stuck at home. But it ended up being very cathartic.
– Junior Kendall Proffitt

Neville plans to continue the travel writing course. It’ll be especially helpful for students, who are too busy or lack finances to go abroad. Like this spring’s forerunners—they’ll learn it doesn’t take thousands of miles to find excitement and adventure.

It only takes a peek out their back doors.

Neville's garden at home, during pandemic.
Neville's garden at home, during pandemic.