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

Truly immersed

Out-of-classroom learning has life-changing results

By Judy Berthiaume

Jodi Simek '97
Jodi Simek '97

A nontraditional student and father of four, Michael Kremer planned to look for a teaching job in the Upper Midwest when he graduated, settling his family in the kind of community they were all accustomed to living in.

Those plans changed when Kremer visited schools in South Carolina as part of a spring break immersion experience with his "Social Foundations of Human Relations" class.

"I wouldn’t have sought out a place like Sumter if I hadn’t been part of that trip," said Kremer, who now teaches social studies at a Sumter high school where about 70 percent of the students are black and most are from low-income families. "The experience made me open to the idea of moving farther away; it made me want to pursue it heavily."

Sumter, S.C., is more diverse than many midsize Midwestern cities, something Kremer said he found attractive about the area when he first visited, adding that while he wanted to live in a diverse community, he had no interest in moving to a large metropolitan area.

"The diversity is a big reason I came here," Kremer said. "The South is a different culture. It’s not just the racial diversity, but many things are different from Eau Claire and the Upper Midwest. I wanted my kids to grow up in a place that is more diverse."

Kremer said the connections he made with students and others during his spring trip convinced him Sumter would be a good fit.

"The university needs to get students into environments where they feel a little uncomfortable," Kremer said, noting that he was impressed by how passionate the education faculty are about diversity. "When you feel like an outsider, it can open your eyes to other people’s experiences or beliefs."

Providing even more students with immersion experiences — domestically or internationally — is among the goals of the university’s new strategic plan.

The term "immersion" can be used to describe a variety of activities, including everything from short-term community projects to longer-term study abroad, internships or faculty-student research experiences, said Susan Turell, interim associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean of undergraduate studies.

"All kinds of immersion experiences offer students chances to apply their classroom learning in new and life-changing ways," Turell said. "Research indicates that these experiences are extremely beneficial to students; they increase student GPAs, retention and graduation rates. They are especially meaningful for first-generation and low-income college students."

The experiences can result in students developing new goals within their chosen professions — such as Kremer’s decision to seek a teaching position in a more diverse part of the country — or they can result in students seeking paths that they never before knew existed, Turell said.

Kremer received his teaching degree from UW-Eau Claire in 2008 and had previously received a bachelor’s degree from the university in 1995.

Realizing a goal

A 2006 music education graduate, Nick Johnson is in his third year teaching band and music at Bay View High School, a Milwaukee school that has one of the largest minority enrollments in the state.          

Johnson became interested in teaching in urban schools after trips with a campus organization took him to schools in Detroit, Chicago, Baltimore and Minneapolis.

"The Detroit trip opened my eyes to a lot of things I never encountered growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis," Johnson said. "As I visited other schools, it became apparent that the need I saw in Detroit was also a need in urban schools across America. I also discovered that I enjoyed the kids and the challenges that were specific to teaching in an urban setting."

With a newly established goal to teach in an urban setting, Johnson became the second UW-Eau Claire student to complete his student teaching in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

Johnson said student teaching in Milwaukee solidified his interest in teaching in urban schools and provided him the connections he needed to find a job after graduation, adding that those connections also helped get his teaching career off to a strong start.

"The transition from student teaching to first-year teacher was smoother because of the advice I received from Milwaukee directors about my specific situation," Johnson said. "They told me about the school, the community and the history of the program. They worked with me throughout the summer to help me, giving me invaluable wisdom on everything from organizing the room to what to expect in the first days.

"The biggest challenge was the culture shock. During my first year, I felt like I was working in a different country. The slang was different, the unwritten rules were different, and the expectations of the students and the struggles they went through were different from any of my experiences. UW-Eau Claire’s willingness to let me student teach in Milwaukee definitely helped me deal with the foreignness and set me up for success my first year."

With a majority of his students coming from low-income, single-parent homes, Johnson said getting students to take school seriously is an ongoing challenge. Few parents come to concerts and conferences, he said. Some have legitimate reasons such as work, but some just don’t make their child’s education a priority, sending kids the message that school isn’t important, he said.

"Students who live in poverty have a lot going on at home that taxes their mental resources, leaving them little time to worry about fingering for a B-flat on the trumpet," Johnson said. "They often need extra help with things like basic skills and expressing emotions. I do as much counseling and motivating as I do teaching. I also spend time teaching basic etiquette and socially acceptable behavior because it often is not taught at home or the students are never exposed to certain situations."

Despite the challenges, Johnson said he’s exactly where he wants to be.

"The thing that makes the job rewarding is overcoming these obstacles," Johnson said. "In three years, I have seen a huge improvement in the band program here. The kids are proud of the band and are improving every year on their instruments. When my marching band goes down the street and they sound great and everyone is on the right step, you can see the pride in their eyes. That’s what keeps me going. Those are the things that make the disappointments, long hours and struggles worth it. When you see these kids rise to the expectations you set for them and then go a little further, it’s a great feeling."

Across all disciplines

Students with a variety of majors and career interests have opportunities for immersion experiences. Several examples follow.

Study abroad

An accounting and business administration major from a small Wisconsin town, Jodi Simek assumed she’d go to work for an accounting firm after she graduated in 1997. Her plans changed after studying in Sweden. She kept her business majors but joined the Peace Corps instead of the corporate world.

"Being from rural Wisconsin, I didn’t imagine the different kinds of jobs available," said Simek, who now is an international student adviser at UW-Eau Claire. "I doubt the Peace Corps would have been something I’d have thought about had I not studied abroad."

While following a career path that’s different from many of her classmates’, Simek has put her business degrees to good use.

"Through the Peace Corps, I spent time in the emerging economies of Eastern Europe," said Simek, who taught accounting at a university in Ukraine. "In Ukraine, many of the Western business ideas did not exist. U.S. kids were familiar with checking accounts and interest at a young age. For my students, this was all new. At the time, many words we use in business did not exist in the Ukrainian language."

Simek said her Peace Corps experiences, combined with jobs in various parts of the country, have prepared her well for her current position, which requires her to interact with students from throughout the world.

A random stop in Career Services her freshman year literally changed her life, said alumna Jessica Church. After a career counselor described her experience studying in France, Church immediately applied to study in Spain.

"Nine months later, I stepped off the plane in unknown territory," Church said. "I probably would have eventually studied abroad, but my visit with that counselor affected when I studied abroad, which has had a lasting impact."

Church’s semester in Spain convinced her to major in Spanish and gave her the confidence to work abroad when she graduated in 2006. A conversation assistant at a high school in Spain, she is pursuing course work to become a teacher there.

"I always half-jokingly said I wanted to travel the world after I graduated," said Church, who last year married a Spanish man she met while studying abroad. "But I don’t think I ever imagined it would happen. Studying abroad made me more confident when I was pondering the possibilities that lay before me after graduation. I had the group experience of study abroad and the experience speaking Spanish in the real world, which made it easier to do this on my own."

Since moving to Spain, Church has found that she likes teaching and is good at it.

"There’s a tendency in college to get going on a path, hunker down and get there as soon as you can," Church said. "It’s tough to stray from that path. But any adventure that takes you out of your routine and gets you moving your body or using your mind in a different way, that’s the stuff that will open you up to new experiences. Employers are looking for thinkers, for people who have lived life, and not out of a textbook."

Student research and internships

Kally Worm was a biology major on a pre-med track when she took a plant biology course from assistant professor Tali Lee. Fascinated by the course and impressed by Lee’s passion for research, Worm asked to collaborate with Lee on a project.

Worm later was accepted into the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which allowed her to work with Lee at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve in Central Minnesota.

"I thought it would be fun to work outdoors for a summer, and then I would go to medical school," Worm said. "All summer I worked outside every day with others to maintain the experiment and gather data. I also worked with Tali to measure photosynthetic rates of various prairie species. It was hard work, and I loved every minute of it!"

Worm continued her research, including working with other scientists at Cedar Creek.

"I graduated on the pre-med track (in 2005), but since that first summer at Cedar Creek I’ve never thought about medical school," said Worm, who now is the research coordinator at Cedar Creek. "I love my job. I’m grateful for the opportunity that Tali gave me and for the mentoring she provided. Those opportunities have drastically shaped my life."

A series of research experiences and internships also helped biology major PaHoua Lee plan her future. In 2007 she was a student researcher at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab, working on research that she presented at a national Ecological Society of America meeting. She spent the 2007-08 academic year analyzing the data from her summer project.

With that experience on her college resume, Lee was one of 20 students from throughout the country accepted into ESA’s Strategies for Ecology, Education, Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) program. Through the program, she spent a week in Alaska studying the effects of fire on forest vegetation.

Lee next secured a naturalist internship at Point Beach State Forest along Lake Michigan.

"It was an amazing opportunity to develop my own environmental education programs and present these programs to the forest campers and visitors," said Lee, who will graduate in August. "I found a career I would like to pursue because of this experience."

A collaborative research project with biology professor Darwin Wittrock also helped 2008 graduate Matt Brewer better define his future.

"The research got me interested in parasitology and put me on the path to veterinary school," said Brewer, who is in veterinary school and working toward a Ph.D. in protozoology at Iowa State University. "I’d been interested in being a vet for a while, but the project helped me decide that I’d like to do veterinary science."

Brewer’s research brought him in contact with farmers and area veterinarians, an experience he said helped him in multiple ways, including enhancing his candidacy when applying to vet schools.

"I wanted to be a dairy vet but I also really like science," Brewer said. "The research helped me realize that I could do both. I want to practice for a while and then practice and do research at the same time."

When Helen Young came to UW-Eau Claire as a freshman, she planned to major in communications, but she quickly changed her mind after taking history classes.            

"I had no idea what was out there," Young said of career options. "I didn’t know someone would pay me to go hiking in the mountains or do the volunteer-type work I enjoy in my community."

Young spent a summer working at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington as a resource interpreter, a position she obtained through the Student Conservation Association. She worked 40 hours a week at the visitor center, roving the trails and providing daily interpretive walks for visitor groups up to 75, presentations that she developed.

"As a public history major and geography minor, this experience fit perfectly with my academic work," Young said. "I practiced many skills: public speaking, communications, research and writing. Not only did I practice in a real-world setting, but I lived and worked on the side of a mountain, met new friends and traveled to new places.

"The experience was one of the best things I did in college. When I stepped outside my comfort zone, I found out more about myself than I ever had before. It made me more prepared and excited to follow what I want to do, to explore new places and try new things. That is the most valuable aspect of a total immersion experience."

The experience at Mount Rainier also helped Young identify what she wants in a career.

"I discovered that I enjoy working with people, the outdoors and being creative," Young said. "The experience, coupled with internships working for the city of Eau Claire, made me realize that I want to work within a community, conducting community outreach or downtown development."

A December 2008 graduate, Young now works as a research consultant for the Friends of the Fox, an Appleton-based nonprofit Fox River advocacy group that promotes conservation, preservation, recreation and interpretation.

"My work at Mount Rainier ties in nicely with what I’m doing," Young said, noting that she will soon become the organization’s community outreach coordinator. "I enjoy the work very much. It has allowed me to be a part of something meaningful."

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


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