Medieval Multiculturalism: An Immersion in Three Cultures

Students taking part  in medieval Spain study abroad course.
Students UC Davis study abroad Spain
Study abroad students at cathedral  

The UC Davis Summer Abroad course “Three Cultures of Medieval Spain” immerses student scholars in a world where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities coexisted and spawned a flowering of scientific, artistic, and architectural achievement.

“Medieval Spain was one of the most intriguing historical periods precisely because the three ethnic groups were forced to live together, for better or worse, from 711 to 1492,” said Spanish professor Robert Blake, who created and leads the class. “The Arab world was the top of the heap with the best architecture, science, music, and medicine. Students get a real insight into how the Islamic world operated, its widespread influence, and how this multicultural society existed for hundreds of years before the word ‘multicultural’ existed.”

Examining how these cultures interacted also provides students with insights into today’s refugee crisis, mass migration, religious conflicts, and the dynamics of a multiethnic society, he said. They also get a firsthand look at places they’ve only seen in pictures and immerse themselves in the Spanish language.

Offered every two years, the course takes place in Cordoba, Seville, Cadiz, Toledo, and Granada, cities that reflect the Islamic presence. Students visit architectural masterpieces including the Great Mosque of Cordoba and the Alhambra in Granada.

"Seeing the buildings I had studied about in class was like meeting celebrities," said Helena Zittel, double major in art history and English. "You experience the language of power in these spaces and how the religions play off of one another.”

Charlotte Hoefer, a Spanish major, shared her experience. “Going to the Alhambra or Alcazar — as opposed to reading about them in a textbook — transformed my view of Spanish culture and allowed me to comprehend Spain’s profound historical past.”

Study abroad, spain, UC Davis
Exploring the allies on Spain

Aime Ozuna, a double major in international relations and Spanish, could see the roots of her Mexican heritage and learn about the differences between spoken Spanish in Mexico and Spain. Julia Gamaza, a clinical nutrition major and Spanish minor, liked the immersion into the language: “There are no outs — you have to speak it.”

All of them see the experience as a benefit for their career objectives: Ozuna in international public health policy, Gamaza in public health and nutrition, Hoefer in nursing, and Helena Zittel in art history.

“It changed my perspective of people with different cultural backgrounds,” Hoefer said. “Being open-minded and having the experience of immersion in a unique culture shows that you can be adaptive to change, which is so important in the workforce.”

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science

Practical and social benefits of study abroad

Half of the UC Davis students who participate in Study Abroad programs come from the College of Letters and Science. Courses and locations range from chemistry in Taiwan and filmmaking in Ireland to fashion marketing in Paris and economics in London.

Beyond opening minds to different cultures and bringing the places and events recounted in books to life, other studying abroad benefits abound. These include increases in graduation rates and GPA, according to Greg Gunderson, program coordinator and advisor for UC Davis Study Abroad. “The professors really get to know them and they get to know the professor. They often make contacts that lead to internships and other opportunities,” he said.