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International programs take senior to Europe, Central America this year

| Judy Berthiaume

Alison Olmstead already was preparing to study abroad in Scotland when she noticed information on UW-Eau Claire's website about a Winterim immersion trip to Guatemala.

While still excited for her semesterlong study abroad program at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, the senior environmental geography major knew immediately she also wanted to be part of the Guatemala trip.

The two-week Winterim trip's focus on social and environmental justice was appealing, as was the opportunity to fulfill her service-learning hours while immersed in another culture.

"So I went abroad twice this year," says Ali, a St. Paul, Minnesota, native who will graduate in May. "I spent four months in Aberdeen, Scotland, and less than two weeks after getting back home in December, I left for the Winterim trip to Guatemala."

"Going from Europe to Guatemala was a huge contrast, but it helped me fully comprehend the drastic inequalities that exist across the globe."

While both the Scotland and Guatemala programs provided Ali with opportunities to learn about a different part of the world, she had very different kinds of experiences through each of the programs.

Studying in Scotland for the full fall semester gave Ali a chance to take classes in her major that are not offered at UW-Eau Claire. She also met students from various countries, and was able to explore Europe with her new friends.

"It was an exchange program, so I became friends with students from all over Europe," Ali says. "I was able to go on a few different weekend trips. My favorite was Switzerland. We stayed in the Alps and woke up to the first snow of the season."

In Guatemala, Ali was engaged in real-world social and environmental justice issues as she interacted with Guatemalan community members who are involved with community-based projects.

Interacting closely with the Guatemalans helped her better understand a country that she knew little about before she began planning her trip to Central America, Ali says.

After two weeks of working and living alongside Guatemalans, she has a better understanding of the region, and now feels a personal connection to the country and its people.

"The highlight of the trip for me was the home stay we had with members of the coffee farming community in Santa Anita," Ali says. "The farmers are revolutionaries from the Guatemalan civil war. It was a life-altering experience to get to know my host family, and also to learn about what the cooperative members experienced during the war and after as they rebuilt their lives as coffee farmers."

While in San Miguel Escobar, Ali and her fellow Blugolds dined with a different coffee farming family every night.

"We went to their homes, where they welcomed us with a home-cooked meal," Ali says. "It was a great way to meet many different people, try different foods and hear stories about their lives."

The UW-Eau Claire students also each picked a different artisan workshop to visit for a day, giving them a chance to observe and interact with the artisans as they went about their usual daily routines.

"I was in a workshop with an artisan who takes used traditional huipil shirts and sews them into purses," Ali says. "Since it was a small group, we were able to get to know her really well. Her talent for sewing and design were amazing to watch."

Sharing her Guatemalan experience with other open-minded Blugolds who were eager to learn as much as possible during their time in Central America made the immersion trip that much more meaningful, Ali says.

The Blugolds came from various majors, so they brought different knowledge and viewpoints to the discussions and experiences during the trip, Ali says, noting that several of the students made a no Wi-Fi pact to help ensure they were fully present every moment.

"Studying abroad has allowed me to see the bigger picture," Ali says of her back-to-back international experiences. "Being present in a place and learning from the people there makes learning a personal experience that can never be forgotten."

The social justice and environmental aspects of the Guatemala immersion trip were especially powerful, Ali says.

"It showed me how much larger the world is than my life in the Midwest," Ali says. "And it made me realize that I want to make a difference in the world, and that I can make a difference in the world. I learned how much of a difference a single person's persistence toward justice can make."

Both international experiences are helping shape how Ali sees the world, as well as how she sees herself in it. They also inspired her to continue to explore new places and to immerse herself in new cultures.

After she graduates in May, Ali will work as an au pair for a family in the Netherlands, a place she had visited during her semester abroad.

"My study abroad experiences definitely influenced my decision to go to the Netherlands," Ali says. "I could see myself living there because of the beauty of the cities and the bike culture of the country. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn't say no to."

She's not sure what will come after her time working and living in the Netherlands, but she is keeping her mind and her options open.

"My degree in environmental geography is broad, which is good because it gives me flexibility," Ali says of her future.

Photo captions:

Top photo: Blugolds Alyson Reum, left, and Ali Olmstead carry the lumber used to construct the walls for a new family home. The Guatemala Immersion students spent three days in San Lucas Toliman working in solidarity with locals.

Photo within story: Alison Olmstead tours the Santa Anita coffee fields in Guatemala.

Photo credit: Photos by UW-Eau Claire student, photographer Heidi Giacalone