How well do you know Miami? FIU ‘study abroad’ class is an educational staycation

Gabriela Lastra has hiked the Valley of Hell in Tivoli, snorkeled along the cliffs of Cinque Terre and traversed Pompei, Rome and Assisi with Florida International University’s study abroad program.

But she’s lived in Miami for nine years and has never ridden the Metrorail. Never even heard of the Lowe Art Museum. Never visited the historic community of Overtown.

“I’ve seen more of Italy than I have of Miami,” said Lastra of Aventura. “And even then I still only know my little area.”

This semester, Lastra, a 19-year-old criminal justice senior in FIU’s Honors College, embarked on a different kind of study abroad — no passport needed.

FIU Honors College has launched a seminar called Miami in Miami, which mimics an immersive study abroad experience in its own backyard. Students get to walk, talk, eat and drink their way around the city with thoughtful context and observations from a tour guide — their professor, accomplished artist John Bailly.

Bailly directs FIU’s study abroad programs in Italy, France and Spain, but realized this summer that some of his students who traveled across an ocean to snorkel off Italy’s Ligurian Coast had never done so in Biscayne Bay.

“I felt like, let’s do an immersion here,” Bailly said.

Bailly was 10 when he moved with his family to Miami from France in 1978. He went away for school but later returned and now teaches a few classes in the Honors College. After he was interviewed by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs reached out to Bailly and provided him with information on the city. He spent this summer crafting an itinerary for the class.

“The hardest thing is to decide what not to do,” he said.

The class blocks out six hours every other Wednesday for an excursion: Slogging through Everglades National Park, canoeing to clean up the shore of Chicken Key and hiking to the excavated remains of the Tequestas at the Deering Estate.

But first, students must learn to navigate their own city. Bailley recently gathered the class at the Dadeland South Metrorail station for a formal introduction to public transit, from buying a transit pass to proper escalator etiquette. They spent the day riding the metro and walking to spots nearby: The Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami, Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, lunch at Jackson’s Soul Food in Overtown and the Purvis Young mural at the Northside metro stop.

For many students, it’s the first opportunity they’ve had to really get to know their hometown. A little more than half of Bailly’s 20 students were either born in Miami or grew up in the city.

“Most of the things on the syllabus I haven’t even heard of,” said 20-year-old finance senior Blanca Alcaraz, who emphasizes that she’s from West Kendall.

The class, which filled to capacity almost immediately, has a mix of students of all disciplines: international relations, finance, computer engineering, marine biology. It’s a nice break for students with intense studies, like 19-year-old Danny Perez, a mechanical engineering sophomore.

“This is a different class to say the least,” he said.

Bailly’s class offers more than just sightseeing: He gives nuanced context of each location and pulls no punches when it comes to speaking the unvarnished truth about Miami’s history: The mass transit system favors wealthier commuters to the south; Vizcaya, a representation of European imperialism among the native mangroves, is also an emblem of segregation, sealed off with a moat; the construction of Interstate 95 devastated the once thriving black community of Overtown.

“Miami is beautiful in culture and nature, but it’s also problematic,” Bailly said.

It was Bailly’s reputation that maxed out the class almost immediately, said Honors College Dean Juan Carlos Espinosa, who called Bailly one of the most gifted professors he’s worked with.

“A lot of the people who live in Miami never really leave their comfort zones or neighborhoods and this class allows students who may be in Westchester or South Beach to explore other parts of Miami that before had been invisible to them,” Espinosa said. “In some ways, Miami is a foreign country to some people so John taking this approach is to me not only fascinating but appropriate.”

As for classwork, students will pick a neighborhood and write a historical guide as part of a project called “Ineffable Miami.” Attendance is taken by uploading a selfie next to a landmark in a WhatsApp group chat. Students also contribute to the Miami as Text blog, recording their reflections that sum up the global, historical and cultural dynamics that shape Miami.

“Most honors college classes, they’re unlike anything else at FIU,” said Marco Linares, a 20-year-old political science and international relations senior who is working as Bailly’s assistant. “It’s not about the grades. It’s not about the tests. It’s about actually learning.”

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