The way I see it: Opportunities for immersion outside of Rice make it the home of unconventional wisdom

The way I see it: Opportunities for immersion outside of Rice make it the home of unconventional wisdom

Special to Rice News

American philosopher John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”


Justin Onwenu in Barcelona, Spain.

Over spring break 12 students with a range of academic and career interests went to Spain to have an unconventional educational experience that included conducting research and exploring the vibrant city of Barcelona. We traveled as members of the School of Social Sciences’ Global Urban Lab (GUL) program to speak with professors, researchers, nonprofit organizers and industry leaders to inform our research topics.

From comparing Houston and Barcelona’s entrepreneurial culture and policies to evaluating the social justice implications of urban greening, from analyzing tourism as a driver for economic growth to studying Chagas disease epidemiology and barriers to care, and from examining cultures of homeownership in Barcelona and Houston to evaluating the merits and pitfalls of Spain’s universal health care system, each student had an in-depth, comparative research topic that they explored during our time in Barcelona.

The week was absolutely jam-packed with a great mixture of qualitative research methods (through interviews with experts and members of the community) and understanding our research topics in the context of the local culture (through exploring the city and sightseeing).

After an 11-hour trans-Atlantic flight, four-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany, and another flight from Germany to Spain, we fought any and all inklings of jet lag and hit the ground full speed on our first day in the city. There were so many attractions and historical sights to visit in Barcelona, and our timing was absolutely perfect.

We started our day at Plaza d’Espanya, which was the finish line of the Barcelona marathon. In fact, as we exited the metro station and entered the street, we were immediately immersed in an atmosphere of cheers and glee. We shared in the excitement as the first-place runner, seemingly running in stride with a speeding motorcycle escort, finished the last leg of the race as we arrived.

We then spent the rest of the day exploring Montjuic, a popular hilltop area that is home to many attractions, including several of the 1992 Olympic Games sites, the historic National Art Museum of Catalunya and countless gardens and parks overlooking scenic views of Barcelona. We finished our first day in foodie paradise at a popular tapas restaurant. Tapas food is a distinctly Spanish style in which patrons are served a wide variety, seemingly endless in supply, of small appetizer dishes. We fell in love with the restaurant and ended up visiting two more times throughout the week!

After spending the previous day sightseeing, we started the business week with a trip to the Barcelona Institute for Global Health at ISGlobal, where Margarita Triguero Mas presented her research on the relationship about proximity to green spaces as a predictor for health status. This research helped inform several members of the group who were interested in urban planning and public health.

We followed this visit by spending the majority of the next day at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. While there, Giorgos Kallis, a scholar in areas related to socio-ecological development, discussed the socio-ecological concept “de-growth,” which he referred to as “a smooth economic downscaling to a sustainable future.” He asserted that current economic models cannot coexist with needed sustainability and conservation efforts and suggested this de-growth model to shape the future of economic and environmental policy. While this research is certainly controversial, it is also groundbreaking and helped frame many future discussions surrounding sustainability.

We finished the week with several other informative discussions with Rice alumnus Mark Schofield ’87 and Barcelona community members. We also took a trip to Universitat de Barcelona, where we were given a comprehensive presentation by Irene Sabate Muriel on the effects of tourism on the Barcelona economy — especially in relation to home ownership. Like many American cities, Barcelona is also experiencing changes to home ownership status as crowdsourcing companies enter the market with an increasingly disruptive presence. This presentation helped the entire group contextualize each of our topics in terms of major changes in the Barcelona economy.

One thing that made each student’s GUL experience unique was the individual meetings we organized. Our individual meetings and interviews were oftentimes the most rewarding and helpful in providing greater context and detail for our research topic. While in Barcelona, when we were not experiencing all the city had to offer from a tourist perspective or meeting university researchers, we were traveling throughout the city to meet with other stakeholders to inform our research. All in all, the GUL participants collected hours and hours of interview content that we will be working diligently to cite in our research papers.

For someone like me who had never traveled out of the country until coming to Rice, this GUL Barcelona trip was extremely valuable. From learning about Barcelona’s influence on artists and architects like Picasso and Antoni Gaudi, to visiting beautiful Barcelona beaches and mountains, to riding the city’s extensive underground metro network and speaking with local populations, this trip exceeded all of my wildest expectations. This trip was only made possible through the hard work and leadership of Ipek Martinez, director of Gateway; Eugenia Georges, chair of Rice’s Anthropology Department and a GUL faculty member; and Victor Gimenez Aliaga, an anthropology Ph.D. student and a GUL instructor. All of these individuals worked tirelessly from the start of the spring semester to help connect us to relevant stakeholders and refine our skills as researchers.

If there is one thing I learned from this experience, it is that reading journals, books and articles from the comfort of a Rice classroom is one thing, but having a chance to actually immerse ourselves in Barcelona culture while also speaking with everyday locals and experts is truly what makes Rice the home of unconventional wisdom.

Justin Onwenu is a Sid Richardson College junior majoring in International Health and Policy and found out he was elected president of the Rice Student Association during this trip to Barcelona.

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