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Blugold from Alaska finds adventure and knowledge studying abroad in Prague

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire senior Kylie Judd (right) joined community members on a 35-mile nighttime hike during her semester studying abroad in Prague. The trek began near Prague and ended at a holy site that’s important to the region’s history. During the Communist regime, people would make the long journey at night, arriving in time for a morning service. (Submitted photo)

When Kylie Judd decided to study abroad in Prague, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior was determined to embrace every opportunity to learn about the culture and history of the Czech Republic.

So, Judd said yes when she was encouraged to join a 35-mile nighttime hike from the outskirts of Prague to Holy Mountain at Příbram, a pilgrimage that honors people who, during the communist regime, made the trek in secret to attend a morning service at the holy site.

“While I had very different reasons for participating than those who did it during the Soviet control of Prague, it was powerful to understand the lengths they were willing to go to practice their faith with the fear of prosecution,” Judd says. “I’m very privileged to grow up in the United States with freedom of religion and freedom of speech and to think people had to walk 35 miles through the night to practice their faith not too long ago is humbling and eye-opening. It’s an experience I will never forget.”

Judd’s hike to a holy site is the kind of real-world experience that makes studying abroad so extraordinary, says Colleen Marchwick, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Center for International Education.

“Study abroad is full of opportunities to learn outside the classroom,” Marchwick says. “Sometimes the opportunities are organized by the program and other times the students, like Kylie, take the initiative to join a community in an event that helps them to understand more deeply the world in which we live.”

A once-in-a-lifetime experience

Kylie Judd completed a 35-mile nighttime hike through the woods to a holy site outside of Prague. (Submitted photo)

Kylie Judd completed a 35-mile nighttime hike through the woods to a holy site outside of Prague. (Submitted photo)

Judd — a University Honors student from Alaska who will graduate in May 2023 with a communication sciences and disorders major and a certificate in American Sign Language — was with her study abroad program on a tour of the Terezin concentration camp and Lidice memorial when she learned about the hike and its meaning. Knowing Judd is an athlete, their guide encouraged her to join the hike.

“He kept encouraging me to do it, so I, spur of the moment without much thought, agreed to it, though the hike started in six hours,” Judd says. “He kept saying, ‘It will be an incredible once-in-a-lifetime experience.’ It was.”

It's the kind of experience she hoped to have while studying abroad, says Judd, who challenged herself “to say yes to things that scare me” while in Prague. The pilgrimage was the “perfect opportunity to push myself far out of my comfort zone” since it was something she wasn’t sure she could do.

The hike took her up and down hills through small single-track trails in thick woods and on large dirt paths, Judd says. The hikers stopped along the way at altars and crosses in the woods to light candles and pray, and at remote pubs to eat and rest.

“It was around 20 miles in that I wasn’t sure I’d make it,” Judd says. “My feet were aching, and spurts of pain were flashing up my legs. I was 20 miles in but still had 15 to go.”

Instead of complaining about the pain, Judd focused her energies on getting to know others in the group of about 20 hikers. She was the only person in the group who didn’t speak Czech, so a fellow hiker with the best English language skills helped translate so she could join their conversation.

“We talked about what life was like in the U.S. and Alaska and about how they grew up,” Judd says. “We compared our cultures, politics, education systems and life experiences. I learned so much and will forever treasure this opportunity to talk to locals for hours.”

After she “stumbled into the finish line,” she prayed in the church and explored the grounds of the holy site before getting a ride back to Prague. While the hike left her tired and sore, she’s glad she did it.

“It was an incredible experience to walk 35 miles with strangers,” Judd says. “I had to push my body farther than I had before.”

Studying in Prague

Studying abroad was at the top of her college to-do list because “from a young age, my parents instilled in me a travel bug and a drive to see new areas of the world,” Judd says.

She was eager to learn a new language and to be in a place where she would experience a language barrier, something she believes will give her better understanding of English language learners and bilingual students in her future career as a speech pathologist.

The Universities Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) Czech Republic program was just what she was looking for in a study abroad experience, Judd says. The program in Prague interested her because it requires a two-week intensive Czech language class and it’s centrally located, making it easy to get to other cities she was eager to visit.

In Prague, students take classes only with others in the program, classes are taught in English and courses align with students’ interests, Judd says. Many classes are field-trip based, so students spend some time in the classroom and then go on field trips to apply what they learned, she says.

Judd shares an apartment with four classmates, and the other students in her program live in the same building, an arrangement that is “amazing as there is always someone around to go explore the town with,” Judd says. The program directors in Prague also are “absolutely incredible,” she says.

Marchwick says studying abroad helps students be more successful in their future jobs and lives. Research shows that students who study abroad benefit from the experience in many ways, including improved language skills, a greater awareness of themselves and others, cultural understanding, adaptability, maturity and confidence, she says.

“My hope is these skills will aid students in their futures as members of a multicultural workplace and pluralistic democracy,” Marchwick says. “Understanding and working across differences is a critical skill in the 21st century.”

After she graduates, Judd plans to attend graduate school, then return to Alaska to be near family, work as a speech pathologist and enjoy “the laid-back outdoor recreation-based lifestyle there.”

From Alaska to Wisconsin

UW-Eau Claire offers the kinds of opportunities and experiences she’d hoped to find in college when she decided to leave Alaska to study in the Midwest, Judd says.

She knew she’d go to college outside of Alaska since that’s the norm among her peers and something her parents encouraged, but deciding where to go was a challenge, Judd says. Knowing she wanted to be a student-athlete and study speech pathology helped her build a list of potential schools.

“I created a long list of around 50 possible schools,” Judd says. “UW-Eau Claire was on my list because my mom and older sister had seen the campus while on a college road trip years earlier and remembered it as beautiful.”

Judd winnowed her list as she considered what matters most to her in college. UW-Eau Claire checked many of her boxes, including having the most affordable out-of-state tuition, she says.

UW-Eau Claire also stood out because of Dan Schwamberger, UW-Eau Claire’s head coach for cross-country and assistant coach for track and field. Judd sent him an email expressing interest in the university and its running program, and he quickly arranged a call so they could talk.

“I was very nervous, but he was so kind and convinced me to attend the running camp in the summer,” Judd says. “It was at the camp that I knew I’d be welcomed into the team’s family atmosphere, and that’s what I was looking for.”

Schwamberger says Judd is a great fit for the Blugold running program as well as the university itself.

“Kylie is incredibly disciplined and tough,” Schwamberger says. “Her running performance is impressive, but I believe her academic success is even more incredible. She’s definitely a great student-athlete.”

Her coach says he isn’t surprised that Judd completed a 35-mile hike in Prague.

“It doesn’t surprise me because of Kylie’s background running on mountainous trails in Alaska and her desire to always challenge herself,” Schwamberger says. “She’s never going to opt for the easy way out.”

In addition to her success as a student-athlete, Judd also is a leader in several student organizations, including Operation Smile and the Nordic Skiing Club.

Last summer, Judd was an undergraduate assistant for Thursday Night Poets, a group for poets with traumatic brain injuries and/or aphasia. When Judd learned poetry was being used as an intervention, she volunteered to help, says Dr. Jerry Hoepner, professor of communication sciences and disorders.

“She’s an aspiring poet and courageously shared some of her work during our meetings,” Hoepner says. “That’s not easy to do when you’re a student and everyone else has been writing for some time and is living with a stroke/brain injury. She fit in well, commenting on their poems and providing support.”

Other experiences Judd says she’s enjoyed as a Blugold include being a caregiver for a man with ALS and mentoring children with disabilities and/or mental health diagnoses through Trinity Mentoring.

Off campus, Judd competed in the American Birkebeiner, the largest cross-country ski race in North America, which she says is “one of my favorite experiences during my time in Wisconsin.”

Judd says UW-Eau Claire is everything she hoped it would be with one exception — snakes. When making her list of potential colleges she eliminated all the schools in the southern part of the country because of her snake phobia. She came to UW-Eau Claire believing there were no snakes in Wisconsin.

“It was much to my disappointment, shock and lack of research that on my first day at Camp Manitou — the running retreat before fall semester — the person next to me at the fire said, ‘Oh, I saw a snake right over there earlier today.’”

Fortunately, UW-Eau Claire has exceeded all her other expectations, Judd says.

“I could not be happier with my decision as the university has supplied me with countless opportunities, lifelong friends and a quality education,” Judd says.