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Finding adventure and direction in Alaska

| Judy Berthiaume

It’s not all that unusual for Blugolds to come across wildlife as they go about their business of being students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

After all, many deer and other creatures call Putnam Park and the banks of the Chippewa River home.

But not many Blugolds come face-to-face with sea lions during a kayaking class or walk nervously up the campus hill on the lookout for bears.

Senior Allison Mogensen — a Spanish liberal arts major from Greendale — has those stories and more to share after studying for a year at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau through the National Student Exchange program.

“I think that everyone has their own niche, and I found mine in Alaska: mountains, hiking, ice climbing and kayaking,” says Mogensen. “I'm pretty sure I'm going to move to Juneau at some point in my life. The sooner the better.”

After spending a summer studying abroad in Bolivia and Chile, Mogensen returned to the UW-Eau Claire campus feeling a strong “need for travel and adventure.”

She quickly discovered the NSE program, which allows Blugolds to spend a semester or a year studying at one of the more than 200 universities in 49 states, the Virgin Islands, Guam, Canada or Puerto Rico. During their exchange, Blugolds maintain their status at UW-Eau Claire, and pay UW-Eau Claire tuition and fees.

Even better for Mogensen, the program offers an exchange for resident assistants, an on-campus student leadership position in the residence halls that she’s enjoyed at UW-Eau Claire.

“I would pay UWEC's tuition while studying in Alaska and still have the perk of getting my room and board for free as an RA,” Mogensen says of the NSE program. “Why wouldn't I take advantage of an opportunity like this?”

That’s a question more and more Blugolds are asking themselves, says Jacqueline Bonneville, an assistant dean in the Office of Student Affairs who oversees the NSE program at UW-Eau Claire. In 2014-15, 50 Blugolds spent a semester or a year on another campus as part of the exchange, a number that has been steadily growing in recent years.

Since the exchange program goes both ways, this year UW-Eau Claire also is hosting two NSE students, one from Colorado and one from Alaska.

Geography and academic programs are among the criteria students consider most often when deciding where they want to go through the NSE program, Bonneville says. Some students want to live for a year surrounded by beaches or mountains, while others are attracted to a specific academic program that a campus might offer, she says.

Informational sessions will be offered throughout the semester to help interested students identify opportunities and find the schools that are the best fit for them, Bonneville says.

Once Mogensen decided she wanted to be part of the NSE program, she went through a winnowing process to find the schools that would best match her academic and personal interests.

After narrowing her options to the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau and Fort Lewis Colorado, Mogensen interviewed with both universities for RA positions. She was offered jobs on both campuses, leaving her with a difficult decision to make.

Initially, she decided on Fort Lewis because it seemed to be more practical for her degree program, Mogensen says. But when she went to make the call to accept the RA position, she found herself calling UAS instead. The opportunity to explore and experience Alaska for a year was too tempting to pass up. Looking back, she knows she made the right call.

“I've grown immensely: personally and professionally,” Mogensen says. “My time there was like a year of soul searching, which I think everyone needs. I know now that I have a passion for working with college students. It forced me to go out of my comfort zone in a plethora of ways. I didn't know anyone when I got there, other than my bosses, whom I only knew from emails and a few phone calls. I had to provide resources to first-year students on a campus that I knew nothing about. I learned a lot about myself and my core values. It's hard to explain in words, but when I reflect back on my year there, my heart just smiles because it was an incredible opportunity.”

Mogensen embraced both the similarities and differences between the campuses in Wisconsin and Alaska. With a student body of just 1,200 students, the UAS campus community is much smaller than at UW-Eau Claire, though class sizes were similar on both campuses.

An experienced RA, Mogensen had to adjust her thinking given that just 300 students live on the UAS campus. So instead of being part of a team of 120-plus RAs like at UW-Eau Claire, she was one of just 10 community advisers working with students living on the Alaskan campus.

Programming was large scale and often targeted the entirety of the housing community, rather than a specific area within a residence hall, Mogensen says. Resident interaction was much more intentional, she says. Given the small size of the student body, it was easy to get to know students.

And, since the only way in and out of Juneau is by plane or boat, the students were always there.

“You can't drive to campus and that in itself made it different from UW-Eau Claire because students were there all the time,” Mogensen says. “They couldn't just drive four hours to head home for a weekend. There was a great sense of community.”

Like UW-Eau Claire, the UAS campus also is naturally beautiful.

“There's a lake right on campus and if you walk down to the docks, you are greeted by beautiful mountains,” Mogensen says. “On a sunny day, even a gloomy day, it is absolutely breathtaking.”

Coincidently, like UW-Eau Claire, the Alaskan campus also has a long and steep hill on its campus. Though similar in its intensity, UAS’s hill has a challenge not found on the Eau Claire campus — the very real possibility of coming across a bear when trekking up the hill.

“In a weird way, it was comforting whenever I would have to walk up the hill because it reminded me of Eau Claire,” Mogensen says, adding that she didn’t mind the porcupines that would sometimes waddle alongside her as she trekked up the hill. “But it could also be scary because of several bear sightings on campus, something we’d have to watch for when making our rounds.”

Like Mogensen, many students become interested in the program after they discover the joys of exploring new places and cultures after studying abroad, Bonneville says.

“Many of our Blugolds are excited to study abroad,” Bonneville says. “We want them to know that — like Allison — they can study abroad and do National Student Exchange. It isn’t an either/or situation.”

It’s also an easy and often affordable way for students to explore a different part of the U.S. or to take classes that may not be available to them on their own campus, Bonneville said.

Since students pay UW-Eau Claire tuition regardless of the NSE school they attend, students sometimes actually save money if they go to a place with a lower cost of living, she says.

While the NSE students obviously benefit from the experience, they also bring new ideas and diversity to the campuses that host them, Bonneville says.

“Some NSE students have found internships that led to jobs in their field,” Bonneville says. “One NSE student we had here at UWEC started the pep band that still plays at our home basketball games. So while students gain a lot from the experience, they also give a lot to the campuses they attend because they tend to be active members of the campus community.”

As she prepares to graduate in December, Mogensen is most grateful that her time in Alaska gave her the perspective she needs as she thinks about her future goals.

“Based on my involvement with campus, I have a passion for student affairs,” Mogensen says. “Being at UAS reaffirmed that desire. I worked as an RA on an entirely new campus, I had opportunities to work with their admissions office, as well as other facets of campus. My time there also gave me more perspective on the differences in campus culture. I was able to bring my UWEC experiences to UAS, providing students, faculty and staff with new perspectives. In return, UAS provided me the same. Those are all things I will use in the future.”