Lauren Geiser had never heard of Oberammergau.
“I had to look up how to pronounce it,” said the Grand Canyon University English major from her home in Colorado, where she spent the summer as a corporate communications intern for Frontier Airlines.
But the returning senior now knows why the small Bavarian town is so renowned after embarking on an Honors College global studies trip at the outset of the summer. The Journey to Oberammergau (pronounced oh-beh-RAHM-mare-gau) included stops in Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland.
It was one of four trips — two were cultural excursions and two were medical mission trips — taken by more than 70 Honors College students over spring break and the beginning of the summer break. They soaked up the culture and served medical missions in a half-dozen countries, a welcome return to international travel after the pandemic halted those experiences in 2020.
With trips gearing up again in 2021, not only for Honors College-specific trips but for those organized by Global Outreach, the adventurous-spirited and global community-minded took to the corners of the world full-force, including Honors College students in their jaunts to Oberammergau and the European Mediterranean.
Every decade, the town in the foothills of the Alps presents its famous passion play, something it has been doing since the 17th century. According to legend, after the bubonic plague tore through Bavaria during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), villagers in Oberammergau vowed to perform a play about the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ if they would be spared from the disease’s devastation. The black plague ravaged the town in 1632 and 1633, with more than 80 villagers dying during that time: No one died after the villagers made that vow.
They have kept their promise to perform the play, first bringing it to the stage in 1634 and mounting the behemoth production every 10 years in years ending in zero.
It would be another global pandemic, the COVID-19 outbreak, that would force the postponement of the 2020 Oberammergau Passion Play, being staged this year.
Very few times over its almost 400-year history has it been interrupted. It was delayed during the Franco-Prussian War and by the German defeat in World War I, and it was canceled altogether when all plays were banned in Bavaria in 1770, and again in 1940 at the outset of World War II.
More than 2,000 Oberammergaunians act, sing and perform as musicians or provide technical support — almost half the town — during the five-plus-hour play, bringing it to the stage five days a week from May through early October.
“Kids grow up wanting to be in these plays their entire life,” said Geiser, who along with Anya Cofranceso, Honors College Program and Study Abroad Manager, and Kendall Smith, Honors College graduate assistant, were most impressed by the villagers and the Herculean effort to put on such a massive production.
To be part of the play, participants must be born in Oberammergau or have been residents for 20 years. Cofrancesco and the 14 others on the trip met a restaurateur/hotelier who performed in the play from 2:30 to 5 p.m., along with her daughter and brother, the play’s director. They returned to the restaurant during intermission, along with the cooks and servers who also were involved in the play. They served visitors dinner, then cleaned up and made it back to the theatre to perform the final scenes from 8 to 10:30 p.m.
“It was phenomenal how everything was timed so perfectly – how villagers who are in the play had time to open their business and come back and finish the play,” said Cofrancesco, who has traveled to about a dozen countries.
“I enjoyed Oberammergau and how family-centered and small the town was — everyone knew each other,” said Smith, a spring 2022 dance/film graduate who starts her marketing master’s program in the fall.
Even though the play is five hours long and performed in German, “being able to see the passion play was amazing,” Geiser added, as was traveling to the other destinations.
The next day, in Austria, students paraglided. Well, most of them. “I was too scared to do it,” said Geiser.
Cofrancesco added, “That was a very remarkable experience. They take you up the hill, and then you paraglide with a trainer harnessed behind you. It was a perfect day for paragliding.”
Students also took a scenic bike ride through the Austrian Alps.
“It was so spacious and so green. We took a couple stops and ran in fields,” Smith said of the experience, in which she saw lumber mills and drank spring water from a fountain.
It was very “Sound of Music,” said Geiser, who had never been on a global studies trip before this excursion and enjoyed building stronger relationships with the Honors College community. “It’s really great to be able to have that opportunity. You go to school with these people but maybe never have met them before. It’s cool to think that, when you go back to school, they’re there.”
Smith, who traveled to London and France in high school, followed the advice of friends to go out of the country before jobs and “real life” begins.
When she heard about this trip, she thought, “Wow, this is really unique,” and when she mentioned she was going to see the Oberammergau Passion Play, friends told her, “Oh, my gosh, you’re going to see that?”
Honors College Program Manager Gabby Marrama has a unique perspective when it comes to the recent Mediterranean Quest Honors College global studies trip. Students on the 11-day outing jaunted through such European cities as Barcelona, Rome and Florence and visited the Island of Capri, Fragonard Perfumery in the French Riviera, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and Pompeii, to name a few.
Marrama went on the same Spain/Italy/France trip that she did five years ago, when she was a GCU student.
“As a student, that trip was the first time I went overseas. I was in awe,” Marrama said.
But now, as a trip leader for more than two dozen students who made the trek, Marrama said she still felt that same wonder. Only this time, she felt it through the eyes of students.
“I was able to watch others experience it for the first time,” Marrama said of the journey, which included recent Honors College alumni who were invited to join because they didn’t have the chance to do so during the pandemic lockdowns. “It was different because I got to just be excited with them.”
Her favorite part of the journey was visiting Nice, France, and bike riding through the countryside, which she didn’t get to do on her first outing in 2017.
And she also had a rare chance at a do-over.
“My one regret from the first time was I didn’t go to a McDonald’s abroad, so I made it a point to do that in Rome,” she said. What made that experience even more memorable was a flock of 10 other students who joined her.
The Honors College tour group also took a pizza-making class in the best place in the world to take a pizza-making class — Italy. But what senior history major Savannah Miles enjoyed the most was soaking up the past of places such as Florence and the Roman Forum, ground zero for transformative thinkers.
“We were witnessing the foundations of Western thought and culture,” she said. “This trip made history come alive, and I am so happy that I got to see things I’ve only studied in books.”
Marrama said that if you have a means to leave your comfort zone and explore the world on a global studies trip, do it — even if you don’t know anyone else going.
Senior Lauren Straley, a communications major, said, “The trip to Europe with the Honors College was more than I ever could have imagined. The sights were beautiful, and the food was great.
“But the best part of the trip was the memories that I made with new friends. We spent about 99% of our time laughing together and taking in the joys of traveling. Although I knew the trip would be amazing, I never could have predicted the best part — becoming so close to new people, now lifelong friends.”
Cofrancesco said embarking on these cultural trips, such as to Oberammergau and Mediterranean Europe, is one of the benefits of being an Honors College student: “It’s to see something new — to see other countries and cultures,” though ultimately, it’s to “explore the world together.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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