Dialogues of Civilization provide ‘life-changing experiences’ to Mills College at Northeastern students

person standing outside of a mosque
Mills College at Northeastern University student Tomia Patterson. Courtesy photo

OAKLAND, Calif.—Trinity Thomas’ father was born and raised in Brazil, so she grew up speaking both English and Portuguese at home in the Bay Area.

Toys were brinquedos, books were livros and her grandmother was avó.

During the summers, Thomas would vacation in Rio de Janeiro—her dad’s hometown—staying with aunts, uncles and cousins. But as childhood turned to adolescence and then young adulthood, those trips became less frequent, and she lost her fluency.

“My dad and grandma would still talk Portuguese to me, but I would respond in English,” Thomas says.

She is thankful to Northeastern University’s Dialogues of Civilization program for helping restore her fluency.

In May, Thomas was among the first Mills College undergraduates to participate in the 30-day international learning experiences where Northeastern students travel abroad to learn about culture, politics, and contemporary social issues in a global context, led by Northeastern faculty.

Mills and Northeastern merged in July to create Mills College at Northeastern University, but even before that Thomas was quick to take advantage of the additional educational opportunities.

Trinity Thomas framed by yellow leaves
Mills College at Northeastern University student Trinity Thomas. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

Thomas’ Dialogues of Civilization program was focused on communications. The trip to Brazil was her first in almost eight years and her first without her father.

“It was like a homecoming, but it also allowed me to form my own relationship with Brazil in an organized, structured kind of way,” says Thomas, a third-year history major.

In Brazil, the Northeastern students split their time between the coastal cities of Rio and Salvador, but Thomas’ favorite part of the dialogue was a four-day trip inland. 

“It was really fantastic to be able to see the less urban part of Brazil—the natural beauty and the landscapes,” Thomas says. “Because, personally, I’ve only ever been to the cities.”

As part of the two four-credit classes that every Dialogue includes, led by Northeastern faculty, the students visited museums, studied architecture and immersed themselves in local neighborhoods and culture.

When her dialogue ended, Thomas stayed behind to spend time with extended family.

“When I returned home and saw my dad, I was able to have a conversation with him in Portuguese,” Thomas said. “That was pretty emotional.”

Back on the Mills College campus, Thomas has also been advertising the Dialogues of Civilization to as many people as possible.

“Pretty much everyone I talk to,” she says. “It was just such an incredibly valuable experience.”

Susan Prier framed by yellow leaves
Mills College at Northeastern University student Susan Prier. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

Like Thomas, Mills College at Northeastern student Susan Prier also participated in a Dialogue of Civilizations program to improve her language skills. She plans to attend graduate school in France.

She says navigating Paris with other Northeastern students was a life-changing experience.

“It was incredible to see the history up close,” says Prier, who last studied French about 10 years ago. 

“This provided me with the shot in the arm, the boost I needed,” she says. “I’m understanding more now and speaking much faster.”

While in France, Prier studied social issues such as gay rights and inter-racial marriage, and how French culture brings people together through cinema and comedy.

Her dialogue team visited medieval castles and churches, the childhood home of the Lumière brothers—Auguste and Louis—two of Eurpope’s earliest filmmakers, and the Cinema and Miniature Museum, known for its collection of movie props and special effects.

The team also spent time in Switzerland, visiting the United Nations office in Geneva and Manoir de Ban, Charlie Chaplin’s former home in Corsier-sur-Vevey.

“A lot of students were wondering how the merger (between Mills and Northeastern) would work out,” Prier says. “From my experience, it’s been unbelievable and I’m so grateful for that.”

Tomia Patterson’s Dialogues of Civilization experience brought her to Israel.

The third-year Mills College at Northeastern student split her five weeks between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, while studying Israeli law and interpreting Israeli literature.

She visited Nazareth, floated in the Dead Sea, experienced all 14 Stations of the Cross in the Old City, studied Christian and Muslim cultures, and met with Jewish and Palestinian lawyers, judges and lawmakers.

And she kept a detailed journal to remember it all.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I would recommend to anyone,” says Patterson, like Thomas and Prier, a Bay Area native. “It wasn’t just a textbook. It was a lot of real-world learning. It definitely broadened my understanding.”

Patterson will be the first member of her family to graduate from a four-year university.

“So, for me, going on this dialogue was a huge deal,” she says. “I’m really grateful and thankful for the opportunity.”
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