Campus exchange program offers Blugolds new opportunities, experiences

| Judy Berthiaume

While many Blugolds travel the world exploring new places and immersing themselves in new cultures, other UW-Eau Claire students find similarly life-changing opportunities a bit closer to home.

Just ask Megan Werch and Tori Thomas, kinesiology majors who spent recent semesters studying at universities in other parts of the United States through the National Student Exchange program.

“It definitely changed how I see and think about the world,” Werch says of her time at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. “It taught me how important human connections are, and that no matter how smart you are, it comes down to how you treat other people and where you put your time.

“It helped me see how big this world is and how good we have it. It made me want to learn more and never live with a closed mind.”

Tori Thomas (third from left) says connections made with students from across the country was a highlight of her semester studying in California.

Tori Thomas (third from left) says connections made with students from across the country was a highlight of her semester studying in California.

Nearly 200 universities in 49 states, the Virgin Islands, Guam, Canada and Puerto Rico participate in the NSE program, which allows Blugolds to study at a different university for a semester or a year while maintaining their status at UW-Eau Claire.

While studying at a participating campus, Blugolds still pay UW-Eau Claire tuition and fees.

For Thomas, the University of California-Chico’s location offered access to everything from gorgeous parks to mountains to the city of San Francisco, all of which provided new and exciting experiences. A bonus, she says, is that her grandfather lives in the Chico area so she could spend time with him.

The California campus also offers classes not available at UW-Eau Claire, allowing her to study topics within her field but outside the focus of the kinesiology program on her home campus, Thomas says.

Werch also embraced the different classes and new experiences she found in Arizona, which helped her grow academically and personally.

“I took a rock climbing class and had an Olympic nutrition coach as a professor,” Werch says. “Given the altitude, I learned about training with elite athletes, which is a big deal for me. These are experiences I wouldn’t have had here.”

With a roommate from China who enjoyed cooking authentic Chinese food, Werch also got — literally — a taste of another culture during her NSE semester, but without leaving the U.S.

“I also met one of my best friends out there whom I traveled with every weekend,” Werch says. “We ventured to Nevada, California and Utah. We made a calendar of all the places we wanted to go, and we grabbed friends along the way to come with us.

“I was involved in on-campus clubs, and connected with some awesome people from the community who invited me to their homes for laundry, dinner and time to just be.”

Thomas says the NSE program at Chico was set up in a way that encouraged visiting students to learn from one another.

For example, her advisor taught a class that included 10 NSE and international students, which focused on intercultural contexts.

In the class, they explored how to communicate within new cultures, and how to remain respectful, Thomas says, noting she stays in touch with many NSE students she met from other parts of the country.

“I got so much more out of my time at Chico than I expected,” Thomas says. “I was exposed to a completely different environment that made me adapt and adjust. I met people from all over California and learned from them. Everyone had a story to tell and I loved listening to every one of them.

“My college experience was diversified greatly by getting to learn from my new friends and community.”

At Chico, Thomas also learned that life lessons can come from challenging experiences.

She was studying in Northern California when the Camp Fire started in nearby Paradise, California, a city destroyed by the fires.

“At one point, we were unsure if the fire was going to come into Chico,” Thomas says. “It got so close that we were evacuated for a night. Thankfully, we could return to campus and Chico was unaffected by the Camp Fire. Yet the air quality was one of the worst in the world at that time, and school was canceled for two weeks due to safety and unbreathable air.

“Being exposed to a natural disaster was something I never experienced before. The fire absolutely devastated the town of Paradise, and being there made me realize how quickly things can change. I’m now more thankful for the little things in life.”

Werch and Thomas both were drawn to UW-Eau Claire’s kinesiology program early in their college careers after deciding the major would lead them to interesting careers that align with their passions.

For Thomas, that means going to graduate school so she can work as a physical therapist.

Werch’s career aspirations are more closely tied to educating people about wellness and nutrition.

“At UW-Eau Claire, I discovered myself and what really matters to me,” Werch says of her major. “I discovered how I can make an impact on the world and how I can encourage others. I’m not sure how I fell into kinesiology because I didn’t even know it was a thing coming into college, but I’m sure glad I did.

“I love my major so much. I love how special and small our cohort is, and that we’ve gone through it all together and are there for each other. I love that our professors let us show up and bring what we have to the table, and that they’re there to help us. I love that I have real-world experiences that help people, like the Community Fitness Program where I connect with people and put my skills into practice. I’m where I need to be — helping people get to their best mental and physical state. I have learned so much about the opportunity we have in life, realizing that we can make things happen if we just go for it.”

Thomas, a sophomore from Minneapolis, says UW-Eau Claire is preparing her well for future success.

However, her NSE experience has her feeling even more confident than ever that she will be successful in her career and life, she says.

“I love being active and exploring new opportunities,” Thomas says. “Curiosity led me to discover NSE, which is perfect because I’ve gained a confidence and sense of independence from living on my own across the country and meeting all sorts of new people. Putting myself out there like I did has strengthened me as a person, and allowed me to grow and mature in the way I think and interact with people. My experience with NSE has been transformative in so many ways.”

Best of all, Thomas says, she had those life-changing experiences while staying on track to graduate on time, which is especially important to her given her plans to enroll in graduate school.

Werch, who says she’s always had the urge to “go and do,” also appreciated that NSE gave her a chance to explore new places and meet new people without it requiring more time or money.

“NSE was a way to not spend a lot of money, but still get away and experience something new,” Werch says, noting that learning about other Blugolds’ experiences inspired her to enroll in the NSE. “I saw their self-discovery and I wanted it. I read about the opportunities that they found in their majors, so I looked to see what my field of kinesiology had to offer at another school.”

The less hurried lifestyle in Arizona and the academic emphasis at NAU gave her a different perspective on issues that relate to health and wellness, says Werch, who grew up in Berlin and opted for NAU partly because its setting in the mountains is so different from where she grew up. 

“I focused more on and learned more about the areas of health that I love,” Werch says of her NSE semester. “For example, NAU focuses on nutrition, which is not a main focus on UW-Eau Claire’s campus. Nutrition is now where I want of focus my studies and how I want to help others.”

Both Blugolds say they are looking at the world and their futures differently after their NSE semesters.

They also know they are ready for whatever comes next.

“NSE changed how I see my future,” Thomas says. “It opened up part of me that wants to travel to different places and live out West someday. I love Minneapolis, my home, but from NSE I know there is much more out there to experience. I want to get myself out of my comfort zone more often.”

With graduation a few months away, Werch no longer is nervous about moving away from Eau Claire.

Rather, she says, she’s now ready and excited to see what comes after UW-Eau Claire.

“Studying at NAU helped me develop great social skills, and helped me become more in tune with the type of person I want to be,” Werch says. “It also helped me see how much there is to learn, and how I need to continue to learn. If just four months in Arizona impacted me so much, I can’t imagine what the next years have in store.”

Whatever those years bring, she is ready to make the most of it, Werch says.

“There will be so many things that I don’t see coming that will happen and so many things I want to happen that won’t,” Werch says. “I’m now comfortable with that as long as I’m growing.

“Arizona was a big game-changer. I hope everyone takes time to do something that scares them a little.”

Top photo caption: Traveling to new places was one of the many things Megan Werch loved about her semester studying at a university in Arizona.