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For alumna, LAS builds bridge between interests in route to an enriching career

| Alex Jansen

Whoever said pursuing all of your interests had to involve compromise has never met recent UW-Eau Claire graduate Morgan Gerke.

Gerke, of Bangor, Wisconsin, graduated from UW-Eau Claire in spring 2015 with a bachelor's degree in sociology and minors in Latin American studies and Spanish. Now working through AmeriCorps VISTA with Adelante Hispanic Achievers in Louisville, Kentucky, she credits Latin American studies for building the framework needed to start on the path to her career. Thinking back to her time as a student, adding it as a minor was a no-brainer.

After declaring majors in sociology and Spanish in her very first semester as a Blugold, Gerke found a passion for social justice and began researching the many things of interest to her: rural poverty, food culture and diversity education, just to name a few.

From there, adding LAS just made sense: It allowed her to satisfy her general education requirements in courses that interested her and, as she explains it, “the Latin American Studies program bridged the gap between sociology and Spanish and deepened my understanding of the Latino experience in the United States.”

In explaining her favorite LAS course, "Latin American Civilization," Gerke got at the importance of the Latin American studies program, saying, “It opened my eyes to the interconnectedness of every culture within the Western Hemisphere.”

She also spoke of how much she appreciated the intentional design of each course and how broadly students could investigate Latin America: “It gave me the freedom to choose from courses in a variety of departments, granting me a truly holistic understanding in this field.”

Gerke's work as the college readiness coach for Adelante Hispanic Achievers involves designing programs and collaborations that prepare Adelante students for higher education. She says that many of her students face challenges in their transition to college due to language barriers, legal status and their parents’ inexperience with the application process in America. Gerke works hard to prepare students for the ACT, assists them with college applications and essays, and searches for scholarships to help finance their education.

“I came into this position with a grasp of the Spanish language, an extensive background on Latin American history and politics, and a passion to work with Latino students,” says Gerke.

Beyond her decision to add LAS as a minor, another landmark moment from her time as a UW-Eau Claire student was an internship in Trujillo, Peru.

“I was fortunate to spend my final semester gaining volunteer experience outside of the United States,” said Gerke. “With assistance from Dr. Manuel Fernandez, the director of the Latin American studies program, I secured a three-month internship with an organization called La Comunidad Que Construimos (LCQC), which translates to ‘the community we build.’”

Founded in 2013, LCQC is a nonprofit aimed at working with impoverished Peruvian children to build self-esteem and a positive self-identity through daily after-school programs. The organization runs a school reinforcement program, an English teaching program, physical education, artist workshops and micro-projects with low-income families.

When she wasn’t working with LCQC, Gerke took the opportunity to hike the national parks, celebrate Carnaval with the locals and experience the beauty of Machu Picchu.

“Without a doubt,” she says, “this internship and cultural immersion was the most powerful component of my college career.”

As Gerke’s story demonstrates, the Latin American studies program, which requires a minimum of six weeks of language immersion in countries such as Peru, gives unique perspectives to a range of fields of study, provides an insightful path to Spanish fluency and, most importantly, teaches you more about the culture and people behind the language.