We had the good fortune of connecting with Scott & Meagan Holcomb and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Scott & Meagan, is there something you can share with us that those outside of the industry might not be aware of?
There are actually two things: first, the research behind the effectiveness of study/service learning abroad (and even DEI, for that matter); and second, who is even able to go abroad to begin with.
Research shows that unfacilitated study abroad has an incredibly limited impact on participants’ intercultural competence, and yet the industry has traditionally leaned on the same idea as many DEI trainings and initiatives: sending people abroad (or putting people in diverse groups) and expecting them to just “figure it out.” It simply does not work. Learning how to communicate and act appropriately and effectively across cultural differences is a developmental process that requires facilitation and guidance. Think about it this way: if you have a 6 year old who is really great at addition and subtraction, and you put them into a university statistics course, they would be frustrated and bewildered by the experience because they’re not developmentally ready to work through that content. The same goes for anyone who is at an earlier stage on the Intercultural Development Continuum who is thrown into a room full of those from diverse backgrounds and with vastly different lived experiences…that individual (and the group as a whole) will generally be unsuccessful without facilitation and guidance. We have to stop throwing students into a completely different cultural environment without scaffolded education and tools to be able to comprehend and bridge across the difference they will experience; otherwise, they’re just going to flounder and may even return home more polarized than when they went abroad. Now, we are not saying that study abroad should be shut down without facilitation, but we are saying that if the point of education abroad is to help others broaden their perspective and work effectively across difference, why not do it in a way that works with the brain’s natural development and sets up participants for the most success possible?
But who exactly is getting the opportunity to go abroad? According to NAFSA’s most recent statistics, 70% of U.S. study abroad participants are White, far above the percentage of White postsecondary students as a whole. Traditionally underrepresented Black and Latino students are, on the other hand, significantly underrepresented among U.S. study abroad participants. From one of our partners, Lakendra Brunston-Parker, who is working to raise the percentage of Black students going abroad (currently at a paltry 5.5%) as the Director of Study Away at Virginia Union University and the Managing Director of Study Abroad 4711, we learned that most HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) hardly have study abroad offices. The lack of Black mentors for students leads many to think the study abroad experience is “just not for me.” This is all aside from the general lack of affordability and the fact that many students of color are unable to take a full semester away from additional commitments at home because they’re working their asses off to even make it through a university system that often works against them. Our aim is to provide a scaffolded program that is accessible to all and sheds light on tough subjects, pushing our participants to think critically about themselves, others, and the world around them.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
What sets us apart and how did we get here? In three words: #$%^! the system.
We are both public educators by trade and have worked for many years within the K-12 education system in different cities and states. If there was one thing we noticed as a common thread it was that the system is a mess. From bureaucracy, to a lack of authentic educational opportunities and funding, to burnt out educators and overmedicated children–the entirety of it was breaking us (and our own kids) down. It’s not just a problem in the US, but all over the world. We are at a turning point in the human experience and we realized that we couldn’t just sit back and watch it all go up in flames. It’s clear that what may have served us before no longer does, and we knew there had to be a way. But we had no clue where to begin, and it all seemed so overwhelming.
So we started backwards planning our ideal life–what strengths do we both have, what are we passionate about, and what world do we want to work towards for ourselves, our children, and our students? Meagan is the people person and entrepreneur at heart, Scott is the writer and organizer. We are both passionate about intercultural experiences and travel, and we both have a heart for service. That gave us the bones.
Then we came across a CNN article about a grant program through the regional government of Molise, Italy that was paying people to come live there…as long as you brought a business. We had not even heard of Molise (the second smallest region in Italy) and mispronounced it on first reading (it is pronounced [moˈliːze], i.e. mo-LEE-zay), but we were instantly inspired. We were rapidly throwing around ideas of what we could do–a coffee shop, handmade journals, something sustainable and also unique…nothing was fitting, none of it felt right. We spent countless hours playing “What if?” and “A day in the life of…,” and finally it hit like a ton of bricks and seemingly out of nowhere: go back to the bones. Travel + service + education + social change = a whole new kind of study abroad.
There in our living room was the birth of what would eventually become Molise Italian Studies, a unique and comprehensive study abroad program centered around linguistic and cultural immersion, transformative service learning, and a research-backed, first-of-its kind curriculum of Intercultural Citizenship—that is, the rights and responsibilities relevant to improving human interactions across difference. Such Intercultural Citizenship is increasingly necessary in a polarized and shrinking world, and Molise is an ideal location for a more purposeful education and a more intentional life that can change our participants and their communities for the better.
After that it was a landslide of meetings with mentors and potential partners, curriculum building, reading (have mercy there was so much reading), self-educating, Intercultural Coaching, business planning, navigating through a pandemic, and of course, falling in love with Molise (although it was over a year and a half before we were actually able to set foot there). We realized that in order to set forth our own ripples towards positive and sustainable change, we needed to do something that hasn’t been done before, and we needed a “village” to scaffold our own development towards becoming the best facilitators we could be.
In the last two and a half years our everything has been turned inside-out and upside-down in the most surprising and igniting ways. We sold everything we own, quit our careers as teachers, and traveled from Tucson to Italy to Colorado, reassembling our lives with passion, intention, and a vision of a world in which all individuals can lead safe, fulfilling, and purposeful lives in mindful harmony and cooperation with those of diverse backgrounds and experiences.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
In Molise, popular is a relative term because it is so much less-visited than other parts of Italy, but the most popular town is probably Termoli, a fishing town of about 33,000 people on the Adriatic coast. Termoli’s ancient and fortified center offers colorful houses, a beautiful cathedral, and views of the far-off Tremiti islands. And of course the calm, relaxing beaches are packed on hot summer days. The capital of Campobasso, the home of the University of Molise, is Molise’s biggest and most bustling city with about 49,000 inhabitants. From Castello Monforte one can enjoy expansive views of Molise’s rolling hills and farmlands, and in the city center there is no shortage of fantastic restaurants. Amongst the hills and plains between Campobasso and the coast are numerous wineries (featuring the local Tintillia) and agriturismi.
In the more mountainous Isernia province (the western side of Molise), Agnone offers tastes of Caciocavallo cheese and tours of both a pontifical bell foundry and a copper museum, as well as cooler mountain air, access to the Capracotta ski area, and the Ndocciata Christmas festival. Meanwhile near Castel San Vincenzo one can visit an ancient abbey, wondrous waterfalls, and a turquoise lake with looming mountains. And Venafro, the gateway to Molise, is home to an olive park, an impressive castle, and the Winterline World War II Museum.
That is just touching the surface, of course, as there are so many interesting, beautiful, and historically relevant places to visit throughout the region, including artisan workshops, Roman and Samnite archaeological sites, and a national park.
The real gem of Molise, though, is its welcoming and hard-working people. Indeed, when we visited Filignano for three months last year, our partners and our apartment hosts all left us with a supply of local wine, olive oil, bread, a tasty frittata, and some other basic supplies and treats. Our upstairs neighbors regularly doted over the boys and provided us with fresh basil, eggs, and greens. And even the shopkeepers in the local market and bar were so welcoming and helpful, having infinite patience with our Italian (and in fact apologizing for not knowing English), and constantly offering small gifts to the boys. As we enjoyed one of the tastiest and simplest dinners we had ever had, we could not stop marveling at the unrivaled level of kindness and generosity we were experiencing.
We are, in fact, developing some short tours of Molise (2-5 weeks) for adults who missed out on study abroad in school or who are looking for another life-changing journey. Participants can experience daily Italian language and Intercultural Citizenship seminars; discover the long history and fascinating culture of Molise during afternoon and weekend excursions to charming villages, artisan workshops, olive groves, wineries, and beaches; enjoy multi-day trips to Rome and Naples; and immerse themselves in local culture as much or as little as they are comfortable doing.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
At the risk of leaving out some other very important people, I think we would have to start with Joe Tort, Tara Harvey, and Annunziata Lanni. Very early on we decided to call Joe Tort from Purdue (Meagan’s old mentor from her days at the University of Northern Colorado). He changed the trajectory of this entire program from a basic study abroad program (albeit in a unique place) to something that mattered; something with meaning. It was a phone call that took place during the boys’ Halloween Trunk or Treat and it became the foundation of not only our entire program, but our lives as a whole. Joe said, “Before you do anything, you need to dig into intercultural competence. It’s relatively new and it’s a big deal. Start there and then talk to me after you’ve done your research.” From there we read all the books we could get our hands on, became IDI (Intercultural Development Inventory) Qualified Administrators, took an extraordinary course with Tara Harvey via True North Intercultural, and found an amazing and hard-working Italian partner in Annunziata Lanni. Without that phone call, Tara’s mentorship, and Nunzia’s help, we would not be where we are today, and we would not have made the changes we have made as people, parents, and educators.
Other: If travel is not an option, the Center for Intercultural Citizenship (https://centerforic.com/), in partnership with our virtual internship provider, Kambia (https://www.globalbrigades.org/kambia-program-catalog/), utilizes the same comprehensive curriculum as MIS and offers the chance to make a global impact and develop authentic connections without leaving one’s home community.