Study-away pilgrimage in Spain gives students the gift of life lessons

UAB joins national consortium to teach lessons along the Camino de Santiago.

In a small city in northern Spain, University of Alabama at Birmingham student Anne Tolene climbed onto the roof of a castle to watch the sun set, and as it slowly melted into the earth, so did her insecurities, sadness and loneliness, she said.

That night, she slept underneath the stars. “I felt like a princess,” she said. “It was perfect.”

A year earlier, she was a freshman struggling with the sudden death of her father. When she heard about a UAB-sponsored study-away pilgrimage to the Camino de Santiago in Spain, she jumped at it.

“I needed change and adventure,” Tolene said.

She joined several other UAB students this past summer on a trip led by John Moore, Ph.D., interim chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures in the College of Arts and Sciences. The group walked nearly 500 miles through a string of beautiful, historic towns to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where it is said the remains of Apostle Saint James are buried.

Moore took the pilgrimage nearly a decade earlier and experienced what he called a “wealth of treasures,” referring to the architecture, culture, history and languages. It was a gift he said he wanted to share with his students.

On the UAB trip, Moore’s students shared talks with the country’s natives and chatted with other pilgrims — a Korean opera singer, a middle-age quick-stepping Venezuelan and an American family with a toddler in tow. They danced on 1,000-year-old streets to tunes performed by local musicians. They ran through tall fields of grass that looked like an ocean of brilliant greens and got a close-up view of Spanish sculptures and architecture created hundreds of years ago.

“The Camino was so beautiful,” Tolene said. “The weather was perfect, like Alabama on a spring day.”

UAB recently joined 29 other universities across the United States and Canada in the North America Camino Consortium. Together, professors will teach the significance of the Camino de Santiago through interdisciplinary studies in religion, anthropology, history, art history and others. The program will culminate with a pilgrimage and capstone project. The consortium launches in summer 2012.

The participating colleges met in February to kick off the collaboration with a symposium at Georgetown University. Actors Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen hosted an advance screening of their film The Way, a fictional account of a father who walks the Camino in honor of his late son.

“It is a beautiful story,” Moore said. “This was a fantastic way to energize and remind us why we were there. It launched us in the right direction and gave a strong start to this new collaboration.”

Several of Moore’s students created projects from their summer trip to the Camino. Ingrid Pfau documented her experience with a film that captured the music and memories made along the way.

UAB alumna Jennifer Ghandhi told her story in the fall 2010 issue of UAB Magazine. In it, she called the trip “magical” and wrote: “Traveling by foot is such an antiquated means of getting from here to there in our modern world. But I observed so much. Imagine going so slowly that you can notice each wildflower as you pass it. That doesn’t happen on cars or planes.”

Tolene wrote an essay, “The Photograph and the Iron Cross,” about walking to heal from the hurt of losing her father. Before taking the trip to the Camino she would never have been bold enough to write that essay, she said. “The Camino gives you self-confidence,” she said. Tolene’s essay also was published in Following the Yellow Arrow: Younger Pilgrims on the Camino, a student journal.

“Pilgrimage, I’ve read it defined, is travel for transformation,” Moore said. “It can be transformative for students and for teachers. That is why I don’t plan to let go any time soon. ”