Students, Faculty Hopeful for Study Abroad in Spain

As vaccinations become available and COVID-19 restrictions loosen, study abroad trips may resume this summer.

By Emily Brabec | Freelance Contributor
May 6, 2021
A hiker on the road to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Photo: Jorge Luis Ojeda Flota (Unsplash).

Amidst the uncertainty of COVID-19, the Pilgrimage to Santiago study abroad program hopes to move forward this summer. Offered every other year since 2017, the four-week trip, which is sponsored by the Modern and Classical Languages department, is a biyearly program and was not offered in the summer of 2020. In addition to the Tel Shimron Excavation program in Israel, the pilgrimage is one of two educational programs that may be approved for 2021. 


Barlar and the students are still waiting on the International Risk Assessment and Management Committee (IRAMC) and the COVID-19 Leadership Team for approval for their pilgrimage. At the time of publishing, Spain requires express government permission and negative COVID-19 tests or proof of vaccination for international visitors. Many areas along the route enforce nightly curfews and group size restrictions of six or fewer people. The CDC lists Spain as a Level 4 country, advising against travel due to high levels of coronavirus.


The Pilgrimage to Santiago follows the Camino Francés (or “French Way”), a route that stretches from the border of France to Santiago de Compostela tomb of St. James the apostle in northern Spain. To prepare for hiking across 120 kilometers with 15-pound backpacks, Senior Lecturer of Spanish Sharenda Barlar has been inviting her eight students to go on long weekend walks. 


“We do little hikes together and we try to model the Camino as much as possible,” said Barlar. “A couple of weeks ago, we walked to Glen Ellyn and sat outside of Blackberry Market. We were having our little break and had breakfast. Then we walked back.”


Junior psychology major Kennedy Walpus has been interested in Spain since the age of 6. After her study abroad was cancelled due to COVID-19, she jumped at the chance to join this year’s summer pilgrimage. She participated in the “Iron Man Challenge” at Chrouser Gym to build up endurance for the trip. “We’re walking five, six miles every weekend. I, myself, am at the gym every day,” Walpus said. 


According to Spanish legend and the church manuscript Codex Calixtinus, James, one of Christ’s twelve apostles, was the first person to spread Christianity in Spain. The same legend reports that his mission was a failure, resulting in his return to Jerusalem. Although Paul’s letter to the Romans testifies to a church in Spain, it is uncertain whether James was the person who founded that particular Christian community. Following James’ martyrdom in Jerusalem in 44 AD, legend has it that his remains were sent to Galicia on a marble boat to be buried in a cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. 


The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage began during the Crusades, when popular pilgrimages to Jerusalem were dangerous to make. The Camino is one of three pilgrimages during the Medieval period that Christians could walk, worshipping different saints in towns along the way, and receiving assurance of salvation from the pope upon completion. 


The pilgrimage was rediscovered in the 1980s when Spanish priest Elias Valiña Sampedro and other Camino pilgrims marked the path using yellow arrows and scallop shells. During the Medieval period, pilgrims would attach scallop shells to hats or cloaks during their pilgrimage. In recent years, the Camino increased in popularity following the 2010 release of Emilio Estevez’s film “The Way.”  


Although the pilgrimage consists of seven possible routes, Wheaton students will travel the Camino De Santiago, which begins in St. Jean Pied-du-Port in France and covers approximately 120 kilometers along the northern coast of Spain to the final destination of Santiago de Compostela. 


“That’s the most well-known [route] because it has the best infrastructure at this point,” said Barlar. “[It has] all of that because it’s so popular.” Compared to the other routes, the French Route offers more hostels, restaurants and cities, such as Burgos and Astorga, along the path. 


To prepare for the trip, students are taking Barlar’s quad class, History of the Camino, designed to prepare students for the culture and history they’ll encounter on the pilgrimage. As part of this class, students on previous trips have given presentations on different cities along the route. When they walk through these locations during the trip, the students will then act as tour guides for the rest of the group. 


Senior biology major Abby Rutledge said the class and city provide cultural context for the regions they will travel through and their significance. “When you go to Spain, it’s expected that you’re somewhat aware of what the Camino is about,” says Rutledge. 


Santo Domingo de Casada, one of the cities Wheaton students will visit, has a tradition in which the Cathedral of Saint Dominic de la Calzada hosts a rooster and hen, in memory of two miracles attributed to Saint Dominic. Both tell of a young boy released from wrongful imprisonment following the resurrection of cooked chickens. 


Rutledge included this tradition in her presentation on the history and culture of Santo Domingo de Casada. “If you don’t know the history, you will be somewhat confused if you’re in that cathedral and there are chickens,” she said. 


Besides the culture of Spain and history of the pilgrimage, the students dive into personal accounts of the walk during the class. These works include “To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim’s Journey to Santiago de Compostela” by Kevin A. Codd, a Catholic priest, and “The Way Is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago” by Arthur Boers, a professor of theology at Tyndale Seminary. Both authors walked the Camino in the early 2000’s. 


Walpus said the readings help her to prepare for all the people she expects to meet along the way. Roughly 300,000 pilgrims from all over the world flock to this route each year, and 2021 promises greater significance since it is a Jubilee Year, the year when James the Apostle’s birthday lands on a Sunday. 


Sophomore biology major Annika Wood said that the personal accounts also build on the physical and intellectual preparation for the pilgrimage. “We’ve done a lot of mental preparation, preparing our hearts spiritually in some ways such as reading books and learning about why a lot of people have done the Camino,” she said. 


To accommodate travel during COVID-19, aspects of the pilgrimage have been adjusted to maintain a “Wheaton bubble.” In previous years, students would spend a few days in Madrid to acclimate themselves to the culture and food of Spain, then travel about 240 miles to Pamplona, their starting point for the pilgrimage. However, this summer, they will limit their travel in larger cities by starting in Barcelona, about 20 miles closer. Barlar also plans on having the group cook their own meals and walk rather than using public transportation. In past years, the students would also spend their nights in local hostels. This year, they will be staying in Airbnb’s and private rooms in hostels to maintain COVID-safe practices. 


“I think this [the trip] would be a chance to get — not normalcy, but a sense of regaining control over what’s happening again,” Walpus said. 

Wheaton College, IL

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