Online version of UW-Eau Claire's magazine for alumni and friends  

Defining moments

Students find purpose through international experiences

By Judy Berthiaume

Cory Ploessl
Cory Ploessl

After several months of living and studying in Central America, Cory Ploessl thought life couldn't get any better. He'd met interesting people, explored the beautiful region and greatly improved his Spanish.

"Then I went to El Fortin, and it changed me forever," said Ploessl, a sophomore art education student who spent four months in Costa Rica and Nicaragua as part of a study abroad program. "The time I spent there is the happiest I've ever been in my life."

Ploessl and several other students spent eight days in El Fortin, a poor rural Nicaraguan village.

"We came down the dirt road that runs through the village, and there were little kids and pregnant women everywhere," said Ploessl, who hadn't traveled outside the United States before studying abroad. "They were standing along the road staring at us. The kids were in rags and bare feet. It was an incredible scene.

"I've never been anyplace where there is so much love but also so much need. These people's lives are about survival, yet they are unbelievably kind."

While in El Fortin, the students planted fruit trees, built a greenhouse with herbs for healing and plants for eating, and they played with the children.

"One day we were playing soccer when a boy fainted," Ploessl said. "We learned he hadn't eaten for days and had a broken nose. It was at those moments that the reality of their situation hit me. I don't know how they do it day after day."

The people's kindness despite their desperate living conditions was inspiring, Ploessl said.

The experience convinced him that his future must include efforts to change the world as best he can. His immediate plans include raising money for the El Fortin children by selling his art. After college, he hopes to be a Peace Corps volunteer.

"Whatever I do in the future, it has to include getting involved and giving back," Ploessl said.

Ploessl's journey of self-discovery is exactly why international experiences are so important to undergraduate students, said Karl Markgraf, director of the Center for International Education.

"Studying abroad is often a defining moment in a student's life," Markgraf said. "It literally changes them because they see the world and themselves differently."

An increasing number of UW-Eau Claire's students are recognizing the value of pursuing international opportunities, including but not limited to studying abroad, Markgraf said.

"I've seen a huge change in our students in recent years," Markgraf said. "Students today are ready for new things — they want to do things that are different from what they or others have done. They want international experiences, and many of them want to go places not traditionally of interest to students, such as South Africa or Nicaragua."

To accommodate students' growing and changing interests, UW-Eau Claire has continuously expanded its study abroad programs, Markgraf said, noting that nearly 25 percent of UW-Eau Claire's students study abroad. Students can choose from programs in nearly 50 countries, with programs running in length from several weeks to a full year.

Students also are seeking international experiences earlier in their college careers, with many students now studying abroad as sophomores, Markgraf said. Having those experiences earlier often changes how students approach the rest of their college years, he said. For example, students returning from abroad sometimes change majors, decide to learn a language or devote more time to service projects, he said.

More students also participate in multiple international programs, sometimes learning about different regions and sometimes returning to the same region to build their language skills or understanding of a particular culture, Markgraf said.

"For some students, their study abroad experience is so inspiring that they return to campus and immediately begin looking for other opportunities to immerse themselves in another culture," Markgraf said.

Some of those students enroll in a second study abroad program, but a growing number of the university's top students also now apply for highly competitive programs that allow them to live, study and work in countries throughout the world, he said.

Mai Youa Lee
Mai Youa Lee

Mai Youa Lee is one of those students. Lee first studied abroad in Thailand and then competed with top students from colleges and universities nationwide to win a $5,000 scholarship to return to Thailand for a year.

Lee grew up in America with a limited understanding of the traditional Hmong language, ceremonies and lifestyles that were important to her ancestors. In 2005 she spent six weeks studying in Thailand, an experience that included a stay with a Hmong-Thai family. Her time there left her wanting to know more about Hmong culture and about Thailand, the adopted country of so many Hmong people.

"I didn't understand some rituals that my ancestors have practiced for thousands of years," said Lee, whose parents immigrated to America from Thailand, where they had fled to escape political persecution after her father helped the United States during the Vietnam War. "I looked for an international program that would help me fill in the gaps in my own culture."

The prestigious Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship gave Lee that opportunity. The program allowed the sociology major to spend a year in Thailand learning about the country's culture, language, history and politics, as well as taking advantage of numerous opportunities to interact with Hmong people living there.

"It was an incredible and wonderful opportunity," said Lee, who returned to UW-Eau Claire in June.

Kate Klocke
Kate Klocke

Kate Klocke also has had multiple international experiences during her college career, experiences she said helped her grow personally and academically.

Klocke studied abroad at the University of Halle-Wittenberg in 2005 and then completed a monthlong internship at a company in Wittenberg.

In June Klocke returned to Germany as part of the Transatlantik Program, an all-expenses-paid internship offered through the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest. Students accepted to the highly competitive program learn about German business, culture and language by working in a German company for up to six months.

"I consider myself lucky to have had two international experiences during my college career," said Klocke, who was one of 25 students nationwide selected for the Transatlantik Program.

She said immersing herself in the German culture made her more globally aware and helped shape her long-term professional goals.

"Originally I'd planned to minor in German, but after I studied abroad I switched to a German major and later to a German for business major," Klocke said. "So not only did I have eye-opening experiences abroad, but I also picked up another major."

The campus community has become more aware of the Transatlantik Program, the Gilman scholarship and other prestigious international programs as more of UW-Eau Claire's faculty and staff have come to recognize their value and their students' ability to compete with bright students from the nation's most selective institutions, Markgraf said.

"These programs have always been available to our students, but in the past students and faculty often assumed students from a regional, public university wouldn't be able to compete," Markgraf said. "We often heard people dismissing the programs because they're so selective and the process so difficult. Now we're able to tell them, 'yes, it's a tough process, but our students can come out on top.'

"Success breeds success. Students see their peers succeed in these programs, and they believe they can do it, too."

More students and faculty also are taking advantage of existing international partnerships, Markgraf said. For example, students conduct research with faculty who work with researchers throughout the world, and others attend professional conferences in international settings with faculty, he said.

In fall 2006 UW-Eau Claire's long-standing relationship with Jinan University in China allowed five of the university's top jazz students to travel to China, where they performed for thousands, explored the country and made important connections with the Chinese people.

"When they invited us to help celebrate their centennial, we thought it would be nice to bring some of our culture to them," Markgraf said, noting that UW-Eau Claire has had a faculty and student exchange program with Jinan University for more than 15 years.

The students and jazz studies director Robert Baca performed as part of Jinan's official centennial celebration. A $12,000 gift from an anonymous donor paid the travel expenses for Baca and the students.

John Raymond
John Raymond

"It was the opportunity of a lifetime," said John Raymond of his trip to China, which was his first trip outside the United States. "As a music major, it's hard to fit in studying abroad, but living and performing abroad has always been something I wanted to do. Music plays a vital role in connecting cultures and people from across the world, so it's important for musicians to immerse themselves in other cultures. It was incredible to have this kind of opportunity."

Raymond said the kindness of the Chinese people challenged him to be more selfless, a lesson he will always carry with him.

"I was in awe of how fun and genuine my time was with our new Chinese friends," Raymond said. "It helped me realize that people across the world are similar to me. Learning to love people and not judge them is an invaluable and lifelong lesson that's given to anyone who travels internationally."

Before traveling to China, the jazz students researched Chinese culture and the region in which they would perform. They also wrote original jazz compositions, some of which they performed in China.

UW-Eau Claire has hosted about 60 faculty and students from Jinan, and Jinan has hosted about 30 faculty and students from UW-Eau Claire in the 15 years the institutions have had exchange agreements, Markgraf said. As China's influence on the world economy has grown, the partnerships have become even more important to UW-Eau Claire faculty and students, he said.

"China is a very important part of the global economy and power structure," Markgraf said of the university's growing interest in China. "It's important for us to have good friends there. Our participation in events like the centennial celebration lead to good relations throughout that part of the world."

As more UW-Eau Claire students have shown an interest in learning about the Chinese language and culture, the university is exploring ways to expand opportunities for students and faculty there, Markgraf said.

"We're always looking for new ways to help our students experience a culture that's different from their own," Markgraf said. "Sometimes it's through traditional exchange programs, sometimes it's by supporting student efforts to win competitive awards, and sometimes it's an experience like the one we provided the jazz students. We try to find any number of ways to give our students an international experience because we know from them that it adds so much to their college experience."

Judy Berthiaume is director of the UW-Eau Claire News Bureau.

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Cited for excellence

UW-Eau Claire's outstanding students and commitment to international education are being noticed in a number of ways:

UW-Eau Claire ranked eighth in the nation among master's-level institutions producing U.S. student Fulbright Scholars in 2006-07, according to a list of top producer schools compiled by the Fulbright Program. No other Wisconsin college or university is included on the list of top master's-level institutions.

The university was recognized by a national organization for its commitment to helping more students study abroad. UW-Eau Claire's “Education Abroad: Removing Barriers and Extending the Reach” program received an Honorable Mention in the study abroad category for the Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education from the Institute of International Education. It was one of just four programs in the country to receive the honor.

With more than 400 students studying abroad annually, UW-Eau Claire sends more students abroad than any other master's-level institution in Wisconsin, and it ranks 14th nationally among all master's schools in the number of students who study abroad, according to the Open Doors Report of the Institute of International Education.

In the last three years, four UW-Eau Claire students have been selected for the Transatlantik Program. Just two other universities in the country match this record.

In recent months, four UW-Eau Claire students have been selected for the Gilman International Scholarship Program. The Gilman program, established by the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000, provides awards that allow American undergraduate students who receive federal Pell Grant funding to participate in study abroad programs. The Gilman scholarship, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, is administered by the Institute of International Education through its Southern Regional Center in Houston.

 

Excellence. Our Measure. Our Motto. Our Goal.