“The Magic Month of May” as stated on the autumn 1986 cover of the Concordia Alumni News has been experienced by Concordia faculty, students and alumni for the more than 50-year history of Concordia’s May Seminar Program.
May Seminars formally began in 1967 as a means for modern language students (specifically French, German and Spanish) to experience the language and culture in their respective areas of study. One year later the program added seminars for the religion and drama departments, which were soon followed by seminars in the disciplines of art, history and political science.
The length, cost, participation and destinations of May Seminars have changed over the years. Originally, May Seminars were approximately 30 days long and traveled mostly to European countries. In 1969, students were able to participate in a May seminar for under $1,000. In 1968, only 29 students participated in the May Seminar program; three years later, participation rose to 180 students and faculty. In 1976, the destinations of May Seminars branched to the Asian countries of Japan, Taiwan and China. Today, May Seminars attract hundreds of students who travel to countries all over Europe, Asia, Africa and South America.
One of the driving forces in the May Seminar Program for much of its history, from 1970-2009, was Dr. Gordon Lell, a former professor of English at Concordia. In his 39 years at Concordia, Lell led an unprecedented number of seminars bringing hundreds of students to Europe. When asked what has been most enjoyable about leading May Seminars, Lell stated, “taking students who have never gone and seeing their wonder and excitement.”
One of Lell’s most memorable experiences is taking students into East Germany. The decision to go across the wall was recalled as a “leap of faith” by students who attended the seminar with Lell. Processing through Checkpoint Charlie took four nerve-racking hours. However, Beth Iverson, class of 1979 and a participant on Lell’s 1977 Renaissance and Reformation seminar, recalled the experience being significantly lightened when one of the East German guards discovered a roll of American toilet paper in one of the group member’s bags. Upon his discovery, the guard nearly smiled in amusement at the group of American travelers. Iverson stated that Lell’s leadership “allowed us to just absorb the experience without worrying about logistics which made the experience incredible.” These experiences ranged from moments of “pure delight,” including the magic of Venice and the rooftops of Florence, to those of somber thankfulness. One such moment for Iverson was attending a Lutheran church service in Leipzig which was, at the time, under communist regime. After the service, Iverson remembers meeting the pastor who said to the group, “Greet our fellow Christians in America and ask them to pray for us.”
Traveling abroad was not without its struggles. Lell calmly noted that there was at least one challenging moment on each trip such as transportation problems, event cancellations, and lost passports – the latter of which Lell had experienced six times on his May Seminars. Similarly, each May Seminar had one or two moments that became locked in one’s fondest memories. One such memory for Lell was a student who stated that he had “learned more about life, himself, and the precariousness of the human race than any other day of his life” after a day-long visit to Pompeii. “Those moments,” stated Lell, “are why leading May Seminars is so incredible.”
The May Seminar Program continues to grow to this day as more professors organize new trips and new experiences for current and incoming students. Should a student be interested in participating in a May Seminar, they should contact the Global Learning office.
– Contributed by the Concordia College Archives