When Sam Loftsgaarden came to UW-Eau Claire, studying abroad wasn’t even on his radar.
But it didn’t take the Altoona native long to realize that there is a big world out there and now was the perfect time to start exploring it.
“I wanted to break out of my comfort zone,” says Sam, a junior geography major. “I wanted to gain a different perspective on world affairs contrary to the American viewpoint I’ve been offered. I also wanted to be able to gain a new set of friends.”
His semesterlong study abroad program at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland has helped him accomplish all of those things and more.
As Sam had hoped, studying abroad allowed him to explore new cultures and expand his circle of friends to include people from around the world.
But because he studied abroad in the context of UW-Eau Claire’s geography and anthropology department’s innovative relationship with the geography program at Aberdeen, Sam’s time abroad also offered him opportunities to gain new knowledge and skills within his major.
And it was in Scotland that he figured out what he wants to do with his geography degree after he graduates next year.
“I was unsure as to which route I wanted to go after graduation, but after experiencing Aberdeen I became fascinated with urban planning,” Sam says. “I enjoyed seeing how cities in the U.K. approached issues in urban and rural planning. I’m now thinking about going to graduate school for urban planning.”
Sam was able to have an international experience that was directly related to his major thanks to an innovative partnership between UW-Eau Claire’s geography and anthropology department and the geography and environment department at Aberdeen.
Geography faculty at the two universities established a department-level collaboration that sends Blugold geography students to Scotland and brings geography students from Aberdeen to UW-Eau Claire.
The growing department-to-department program, established within the framework of a universitywide agreement between the two institutions, provides geography students in Eau Claire and Aberdeen with access to the wide array of geography courses offered by both of the highly respected departments on each campus.
Given its success, both universities are committed to growing the relationship, looking to increase student participation in the exchange program as well as supporting faculty and research at both institutions, says Dr. Paul Kaldjian, head of UW-Eau Claire’s geography and anthropology department.
Kaldjian traveled to Scotland in the summer of 2014 to initiate the partnership at the University of Aberdeen, which is among the most international universities in the world.
In spring 2015, Dr. Piotr Niewiadomski, a human geographer at Aberdeen, visited the UW-Eau Claire campus to give lectures, and to better get to know UW-Eau Claire, the geography and anthropology department, faculty, students and programs.
“During these visits, we explored ways of growing the relationship, making student exchanges more accessible, and maximizing the mutual benefits to our students and programs,” Kaldjian says.
This spring, four UW-Eau Claire geography faculty members are visiting Aberdeen, where they will give presentations and also discuss new opportunities to grow the partnership, including identifying a geography field experience opportunity for UW-Eau Claire geography students in Scotland in 2017.
Two students from Aberdeen studied in Eau Claire this year and four Blugold geography students — including Sam Loftsgaarden — studied at Aberdeen during the 1015-16 academic year.
“We’re excited at how this program is growing and what it may mean for our programming and the learning opportunities for us and our students,” Kaldjian said, noting that this year’s numbers are the highest to-date. “We are very happy to know that Aberdeen is equally excited in the possibilities.”
UW-Eau Claire’s growing geographic information systems and spatial analysis courses is a draw for students from Aberdeen, Kaldjian said. The international students can earn a certificate in GIS from UW-Eau Claire, allowing them to build a resume that includes these increasingly important skills.
UW-Eau Claire’s geography and anthropology department also is building a partnership with Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru in Lima, Peru.
Kaldjian visited Peru in March, and a biogeography professor and in October an undergraduate student from Peru plan to visit the UW-Eau Claire campus and participate in a regional conference.
That partnership also is aimed at increasing opportunities for Blugolds to study abroad and to bring more international geography students to the UW-Eau Claire campus to study, participate in field work and collaborate on research, Kaldjian says.
“The department values study abroad so highly that we recently established a $500 fellowship for any geography student who studies abroad or a semester or a year,” Kaldjian says. “Sam Loftsgaarden is a recent recipient and seems to be having just the kind of experience we are hoping for our students.”
Having a semester to connect with students, faculty and others from different parts of the world is making his already exceptional experiences as a Blugold even better, says Sam, who will return to UW-Eau Claire in June.
In Scotland, Sam lived with four roommates — two from Finland and two from Austria — in off-campus housing in a university-sponsored student village.
“I didn't know anybody when I came here,” Sam says. “It was awesome having roommates from different parts of the world. We almost always cooked and had dinner together. I traveled with my roommates to places throughout Scotland.”
Living and traveling with students from other countries has helped him think differently about the world around him and his place in it, Sam says.
“It was interesting to hear international students’ perspective on our own American politics during the height of the primary season,” Sam says. “These people challenged my viewpoints and it was fun to participate in lively debates.
“I certainly now see things from a wider international focus when discussing issues, understanding that many American decisions can affect outcomes in places halfway across the world.”
Exploring Europe with his new friends was an incredible experience, Sam says, noting that traveling through Iceland and visiting his Aberdeen roommate in his hometown of Vienna were highlights of his travels.
“Studying abroad certainly enhanced my college experience by giving me a greater sense of independence and friends from across the globe,” Sam says.
What would Sam tell fellow Blugolds considering studying abroad?
“If you're interested, just do it,” Sam says. “I never would have dreamed of going to study in a place called Scotland when I started at the university. Do not be afraid to go outside your comfort zone.
“You only get to do this undergrad thing once, just go for it.”
Top photo caption: Sam Loftsgaarden (far left) and friends explore Iceland during Sam’s semester abroad.