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Blugolds follow their dreams through National Student Exchange

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Ta’Leah Van Sistine always dreamed of living in New York City. She lived her dream for a semester thanks to the National Student Exchange, a program that allows Blugolds to pay UW-Eau Claire tuition while studying at another participating campus for a semester or a year.

Ta’Leah Van Sistine — a creative writing and journalism major at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire — has long dreamed of living in New York City, a place many of the world’s most successful writers have called home.

“Many writers have traveled to NYC for the opportunities and experiences available there, so as a writer myself, I felt that same draw to the city,” says Van Sistine, a Green Bay native who will graduate from UW-Eau Claire this month. “Many books I've read and movies I've seen take place in NYC, so I was interested in discovering for myself why so many people have been compelled to live in this city.”

Ta’Leah Van Sistine

Ta’Leah Van Sistine studied at Queens College in New York City for a semester.

The Blugold’s dream came true when she spent the fall 2021 semester studying at Queens College in New York City through the National Student Exchange, a program that allows students to pay UW-Eau Claire tuition while attending college at a participating campus somewhere in the United States, Canada, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The program is an affordable way for students to experience a different academic environment and new coursework for a semester or a year while staying on track to graduate on time from UW-Eau Claire, says Cindy Nevin, NSE coordinator.

Since students pay UW-Eau Claire tuition, they also get to experience the diversity and cultures of another region without the steep costs typically associated with attending an out-of-state college, Nevin says.

That was true for Van Sistine, who says NSE offered her an affordable way to live in New York City for a semester because she didn’t have to transfer or pay out-of-state tuition.

“Living in New York City had always been a dream of mine, and the National Student Exchange allowed that dream to come true,” Van Sistine says. “My exchange at Queens College helped me to live life outside of my comfort zone and bear the exciting title of ‘New Yorker’ for a semester.”

For students planning to move to a new geographic area after graduation, NSE also is a way to explore cities or regions that interest them and to start building professional connections there, Nevin says.

“There are so many academic, personal and professional benefits for students who participate in NSE,” Nevin says. “When our students return, they tell us their time away was life-changing, an experience that will help shape their personal and professional futures.”

Embracing opportunities

Twenty-two Blugolds participated in NSE during the 2021-22 academic year, spending a semester or a year in places as diverse as Arizona, Louisiana, Iowa, Florida, Alaska, Montana, Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands. One NSE exchange student from a campus in Kansas studied at UW-Eau Claire in fall 2021.

While NSE enrollment still is below pre-COVID numbers, the numbers are ticking upward as more students are again seeking new experiences and opportunities as they look to make the most of their time in college, Nevin says.

Like Van Sistine, UW-Eau Claire students Mitch Stegeman and Iris Redland love being Blugolds, but also are interested in other areas of the United States. Stegeman fell in love with Arizona during a family vacation, and a short visit to the Pacific Northwest convinced Redland it was a place that she wanted to spend more time exploring.

Both were able to spend extended time in the regions that interested them thanks to NSE. This year, Stegeman studied at Northern Arizona University for a semester, and Redland spent the 2020-21 academic year at Southern Oregon University in Ashland.

Iris Redland

Iris Redland studied at a college in Oregon for a year, allowing her to explore the Pacific Northwest.

“I fell in love with Pacific Northwest forests after road tripping out to the coast the summer before college and have been curious about living out there ever since,” says Redland, a native of Taylors Falls, Minnesota, who will graduate this month with a degree in liberal studies in environmental science and eco justice. “Participating in NSE allowed me to live in a place I’d always been curious about, with the impermanence of a yearlong exchange making the jump seem a little less intimidating.”

While he was initially “intimidated by the idea of living so far away from home and being completely on my own for that time,” Stegeman says his time in Arizona exceeded his already high expectations.

“Participating in NSE was not only the best decision of my college career, but also one of the best experiences of my life,” says Stegeman, a finance and management major from Suring who will graduate in spring 2024.

Stegeman already had been thinking about moving to Arizona after he graduates from UW-Eau Claire, and his NSE semester convinced him that it would be a good fit for him.

“Living there for an extended period of time allowed me to get a better sense of what it would be like to move there permanently,” Stegeman says. “I got a lot of good insight from local students and adults about what it’s like to live in Arizona. The experience solidified my desire to live in the Flagstaff/Sedona area after graduation.”

A transformative experience

While Stegeman, Redland and Van Sistine spent time in three very different areas of the country, they all took from their NSE experiences new friendships and adventures, a greater appreciation for and understanding of different viewpoints and cultures, and a new sense of confidence that will serve them well in the future.

“Living in New York helped me to become more independent and self-sufficient, as I learned to navigate public transportation and directions throughout the city,” Van Sistine says. “The NSE program helped me to live life outside of my comfort zone, to try new things, form friendships and explore as much as possible in a new environment.”

Redland says her “worldview became grounded, integrated and so connected through relationships I built over the year I lived in Southern Oregon.” Now back in the Midwest, she says she brought back with her “friendships, relationships, appreciations and understandings that I never could have fathomed before” as well as a desire to “continue learning and growing and changing.”

Mitch Stegeman

Mitch Stegeman loved the many adventures he found while studying for a semester in Arizona.

For Stegeman, his time in Arizona helped him better appreciate new ideas and perspectives around a variety of topics and issues, including politics and religion as well as everyday life.

“I found the political viewpoints of my friends in Arizona differed from many of my friends in Wisconsin,” Stegeman says. “Hearing people talk about what they knew and believed, and also me taking time to meditate on it, helped open my mind to a whole new world of ideas and cultures.”

New opportunities in and out of the classroom

Whether they were in New York, Arizona or Oregon, the students all say it was the people they met while studying through NSE that made their experiences so extraordinary. People were eager to share their ideas, knowledge, cultures and adventures with them in and outside of the classroom.

“The location is what sold Ashland and SOU for me, but the people I met and the combination of cultures I experienced were really what made my exchange transformational,” Redland says.

Van Sistine says she will “forever be grateful” for the opportunity to meet people from many backgrounds and to experience with them the art, entertainment, food and many other things that make New York City so special. 

In addition to seeing multiple Broadway shows and visiting world-renowned art galleries with her new friends, Van Sistine says enjoying New York City with them during the holiday season also was a highlight of her NSE semester.

“It was a very special time because I was able to attend the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, ice skate at the famous Rockefeller Center, go to holiday markets in Union Square and Bryant Park, and see skyscrapers decorated with holiday lights,” Van Sistine says.

In Arizona, Stegeman found it easy to meet new people on the college campus, friends who “showed me places that only locals would know about and took me on so many awesome adventures.” They took him on many hikes and day trips, including two trips to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

One trip to the Grand Canyon was just for the day and the other time was an overnight backpack trip, which Stegeman says was “a dream come true.” He loved hiking around Sedona, as well as swimming “in all the little creeks, which are great places to cool off and go cliff jumping.”

Redland also went on “many outdoor adventures with really cool people” during her time in Oregon.

“We went hiking, running, rock climbing, backpacking, surfing, small plane flying — it was incredible to be around a community of people who were down for an adventure anytime,” Redland says.

Now back in Wisconsin, Stegeman says he’s thinking about what’s around him differently.

“Living in a mountain town, there were a ton of ski fanatics and people who do extreme climbing,” Stegeman says. “The atmosphere of adventure was much more noticeable there than it is in the Midwest. However, coming back to Wisconsin, I’ve tried to keep that same spirit of adventure. Wisconsin doesn’t have the mountains and deserts of Arizona, but I’m finding many more adventures and activities here just by looking a little harder for them.”

Among the reasons Redland wanted to study in the Pacific Northwest was a desire to “study the natural systems of the climates out west, through the mountains and along the coast, in contrast to the spaces in the Midwest that I grew up exploring.”

She found the diverse academic coursework she was looking for at SOU. For example, in her classes she explored ways to foster sustainable food systems by addressing access and equity, and how horticultural methods affect the surrounding ecosystems.

“In the hard sciences, we talked about people, and how our environmental decisions affect others,” Redland says. “In the previous hard science courses I've taken, we've just focused on hard data and figures, so it was really revolutionary that we discussed people and the social science side of things in my courses at SOU.

“In a course on fire ecology, I listened to members of the Yurok Tribe share about their relationships with each other and the land, giving me a deeper understanding of both human-environmental connections and the inequitable struggles their families have faced.”