By Joan I. Duffy
Think studying abroad is for traditional students from top schools on the East and West coasts, with parents who can afford to send pampered prodigy off for a junior year in Florence, Paris, or London?
Meet Elizabeth Thornhill. The 1992 graduate of Pine Bluff High School is the single mother of a 5-year-old son. Until this spring, she commuted from home to a job in Little Rock and classes at UALR.
But in July 2006, the first-generation college student who had never traveled outside the United States found herself in Poland. For three weeks that summer, she examined the ghostly remnant of Nazi concentration camps and conversed face-to-face with Chechnya rebels still fighting to separate their country from Russia in the Northern Caucasus Mountains.
Thornhill and a half-dozen UALR students accompanied Dr. Jacek Lubecki to his native land for three weeks of study. He took another group this summer. They participate in seminars at UALR and read several books, then reconvene in Warsaw.
Thornhill said she has always had an academic interest in the Holocaust as a piece of history. But she never felt it the way she did by being there, standing in the middle of the Nazi’s notorious extermination camp at Auschwitz and Birkenau.
“None of us walked out of there without tears in our eyes. It was pretty intense,” Thornhill said. “When we went to Gross Rosen, they had this fireplace outside where they had dumped all the ashes of the people who had been burned in the crematorium, and you literally, still today, see ashes seeping out between the bricks of the smokestack.
“It hits home. This is real. You can read it in a book all day long, but until you see it, it doesn’t seem quite so real.”
She stood in cathedrals where Karol Józef Wojtyla tended his flock before he became Pope John Paul II. She experienced first-hand how a country reinvents itself from a Soviet puppet to a gung-ho member of the free market West. And she met curious students eager to learn, so different from her, yet so similar.
“I felt that I had put myself into someone else’s world,” she said. “I was learning what life was like for them and how they live on a daily basis, what their culture is and how they interact with other people. It was a life-changing experience.”
Could she have learned what she did any other way?
“No,” Thornhill said without hesitation. “You look at pictures and books, and it just doesn’t compare to standing there and looking with your own two eyes. I never gave it much thought about going out of the country. But now that I did it, I’m addicted.”