Professors take learning off campus


    By Emilee Erb

    Madison Sowell was recently named as Honor”s program director and Associate Dean of undergraduate education and, while he is eager to shoulder the new responsibilities, it will stymie his and wife Debra”s other passion: study abroad

    The Sowells, professors at BYU, have participated or run 10 study abroad programs in the past 25 years and have instructed in classrooms in London, England; Paris, France and Florence, Italy. The Sowells ran their first study abroad program in 1981 in Italy and were most recently, the program directors of a 2005 London study abroad.

    Madison is a professor and former department chair in the Department of French and Italian. Debra teaches general education humanities courses, as well as a senior seminar for those interested in writing about dance and performance.

    “The Sowells are incredibly knowledgeable people,” said Corrine Foster, a former study abroad student. “They served up an incredibly difficult plate of classes for us to digest while traveling the UK. We learned a lot though! I know if I ever go back to the National Gallery in London or the Louvre, I”ll reflect on my education from the Sowells and feel gratitude for their challenging lessons.”

    Madison is a leading expert of “Dante”s Divine Comedy” and has published several works about the play. Debra is one of the only Ph.D.-level dance historians in the country. As a former ballerina, Debra developed an intense personal interest in the field of dance history and a great desire to share her interest with others.

    Both Debra and Madison”s classes are notoriously difficult but the Sowells put forth extra effort to ensure their students succeed in the classroom.

    “Not only are the Sowells very passionate about their subjects, they care a lot about their students and students” success,” said Shannon Cornelius, a 2005 London program student. “They always incorporate their real-world experience to give students a connection to the humanities we wouldn”t normally receive.”

    In 1981, Madison was selected to begin a study abroad program in Florence, Italy. Along with his wife, Debra, and their daughter, Mary-Louise, Madison ran a program that included 20 students interested in studying Italian art, history and culture for two months of their summer vacation.

    The Italian language and culture has been a passion for Madison since his days as a missionary serving in the Italy North mission.

    The Sowells participated in four more Italy study abroad programs, as well as two London programs and one program in Paris, before being called to preside over the Italy Milan mission, where they served from 1998 to 2001. The heavy responsibilities that came with the calling demanded a 24/7 commitment. The responsibilities became heavier as Madison not only functioned as a mission president, but also as stake president to four districts that were in the process of emerging as stakes.

    Both Madison and Debra view their professorships and the opportunity to participate in many study abroad programs as a wonderful experience that blessed the lives of their two daughters, especially daughter Laura who accompanied them during their calling as mission president and on several study abroad programs.

    “Study abroad has been a great blessing for our daughters to foster a sense of on-going community among BYU students,” Debra said.

    The Sowell”s work does not end in the classroom as they invite students from Provo, study abroad programs and former missionaries into their home.

    “When you have a family not just focused on a university experience but fostered around the experience it makes it natural to open your home for social, spiritual and academic interaction with students,” Debra said.

    Former study abroad students have enjoyed the opportunity to see the Sowells not just as classroom professors but in another perspective, as well.

    “One of the best things about study abroad was seeing the Sowells not just as professors but as parents, religious leaders and members of the church,” Cornelius said. “So much of what they do and who they are is related to their beliefs and showing the connection between the humanities and the gospel.”

    Other students agree with Cornelius.

    “Some of the best experiences in London involved learning from the Sowells at firesides,” said Julia Hess, a 2005 London study abroad student. “You can only bring in the gospel so much into a classroom discussion. It was great to see many different sides to their personalities.”

    Both Madison and Debra look forward to the time when they can participate in study abroad programs again.

    “We love being in close proximity to great museums, theater and the performing arts,” Debra said.

    Madison earned his master”s and Ph.D. from Harvard University in Italian Medieval and Renaissance Literature. He began his professorial career in 1979 at BYU in the Department of French and Italian. Debra earned a Ph.D. from New York University in performance studies and dance history.

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