Photo caption: Blugolds (from left) Katie Murphy, Natalie Johnson and Chancellor James Schmidt spent time together in Italy this summer, where the students are studying abroad. As part of an international trip, the chancellor toured UW-Eau Claire’s study abroad partner schools in Italy. The students shared stories with him about their experiences in the summer program in Florence.
Chancellor James Schmidt doesn’t wear a cape or leap tall buildings, but he’s still a hero to one University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student and her family.
Katie Murphy’s summer studying abroad in Italy was all she dreamed it would be, but a misplaced credit card was leaving her a bit uneasy.
“It’s kind of a silly story because it wasn't lost or stolen. I just happened to misplace it,” Murphy says. “When I couldn't find it, I figured it was best to cancel the card, since I didn't want to take any chances.”
Since she was thousands of miles from home, neither Murphy nor her mom knew how to get a replacement card quickly and safely to her.
Looking for advice, Murphy’s mom contacted Colleen Marchwick, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Center for International Studies, and the Chancellor’s Office. Much to her surprise, she learned the chancellor was beginning an international trek that would eventually take him to Italy and the Lorenzo de' Medici Institute, where Murphy is studying this summer.
Marchwick thought the chancellor already had left on his trip, but Kelly Olson, executive assistant to the chancellor, knew he still was in Milwaukee at the UW System Board of Regents meeting. When the meeting ended, his plan was to drive from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to catch his flight to Amsterdam, where he was to present at an international conference before visiting study abroad sites in Italy.
Fortunately, Olson also knew Schmidt would stop briefly in Eau Claire on his way to the airport, giving them a “small window” to get him the credit card to bring to Murphy. So, Murphy’s mom drove from La Crosse to deliver the card to Olson, who then brought it to the chancellor at his house just as he was leaving for the airport. A few days later, Schmidt delivered it to Murphy in Florence.
“I’m so incredibly grateful that he was willing to do this for me,” Murphy says. “It really shows that he cares deeply for the well-being and needs of his students and will do what he can to help. Not every student is lucky enough to have a chancellor who would do this for them, but I am glad to say that I do.”
Schmidt says he was happy to play a small part in ensuring Murphy can have the best experience possible while studying abroad in Italy.
“I’m such a big supporter of and proud of our leadership in study abroad,” Schmidt says. “I ask every student I meet who has studied abroad about their experience. Each time I hear the same answer, ‘It changed my life.’ Our team does a great job preparing students to study abroad. They go above and beyond for our students. It felt great that I could do a small thing to help make the experience better for this student.”
Once in Italy, Schmidt gave Murphy the card when he had dinner with her and Natalie Johnson, another Blugold studying at LdM this summer.
“They were full of stories,” Schmidt says of the Blugolds. “They both really want to be in this environment, so it tends to supercharge the learning experience. They’ve made lifelong friends with students who were from other universities. Their only complaint is that the time went too fast.”
Murphy says dinner with the chancellor was a “wonderful experience,” and that she appreciates his interest in all she and Johnson had to share about their experiences at UW-Eau Claire and LdM.
“He even shared stories from his own life experiences, which was incredibly valuable,” Murphy says. “It's easy to forget that people in authority positions have lives outside of their jobs, but sharing silly travel stories really made me appreciate him more as a chancellor and as a person.”
While everything about the scenario was unusual, Marchwick says she, too, is glad that the chancellor and his staff were willing to go above and beyond to support a Blugold studying abroad.
“I don’t remember a request like this during my time at UWEC, but I’m glad it worked out,” Marchwick says. “The chancellor and his staff did a lot to make it happen.”
Johnson, a native of Apple Valley, Minnesota, who will graduate in December with a major in communication and minor in marketing, has dreamed of visiting Italy since she was in high school.
“It was my number one travel bucket list destination, and I even had vision boards of where I wanted to travel to in Italy, so this was a really full-circle moment for me,” says Johnson, who is taking a class on Italian food history and cuisine.
While she loves the class, Johnson also is enjoying immersing herself in the local culture. A highlight of the summer was visiting Cinque Terre, which she says is “the most beautiful place I’ve ever traveled to. It felt straight out of a dream with the beautiful blue sea and colorful buildings.”
The whole study abroad experience “helps you grow personally and learn to be more independent, as well as a stronger problem solver,” Johnson says. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience; I would definitely recommend it to any Blugold.”
Murphy agrees, saying she’s “had so many amazing experiences in Italy. I know it's a basic answer, but the food here really is heavenly. I've had so much fun traveling and seeing different cities in Italy.”
Studying at LdM in Florence, Italy, is helping her fulfill multiple goals, says Murphy, a sophomore from La Crosse who is an integrated strategic communication with a public relations emphasis major, a women's, gender and sexuality studies minor, and who is earning a certificate in American sign language.
“I've always known that I wanted to study abroad and live in Italy, so it made sense to do both together,” says Murphy, a member of the University Honors Program. “I was sold on this program after attending the study abroad fair last fall. I really felt like I’d be supported in the program.”
In Italy, Murphy is taking an intercultural communications class that counts as an elective for her major. Even better, she says, she’s gaining a different cultural perspective by taking the class while abroad.
After Johnson graduates, she hopes to work in marketing, human resources or professional sales. Her time studying abroad will help her in any of those fields since “being here has taught me a lot about working through communication boundaries, as well as the need to be flexible — two skills I know I will apply in my future career.”
Johnson encourages all Blugolds to “take a leap of faith” and apply to a study abroad program.
“As someone who didn’t do a lot of travel growing up, being in Europe for a month touring the most amazing spots in Italy would have seemed unfathomable,” Johnson says. “But here I am nearing the end of my time here and I couldn’t be happier with myself and my decision to study abroad.”
Murphy says studying in Italy has made her much more confident in herself and her abilities. She’s excited, she says, to use the skills she’s gaining when she returns to UW-Eau Claire’s campus in the fall.
Her time in Italy is inspiring her to consider eventually completing an internship and finding a job in another country, Murphy says.
“Even if I don't end up in Italy, I have many more skills regarding living abroad than I did before that would help me,” Murphy says. “I've learned a lot about communication within different countries and their cultures, both from my class and from interacting with locals. No matter where I end up, knowing how to communicate and adjust to a new place is an incredibly important skill that I now feel very comfortable with.”
Murphy says the “entire experience has truly been a dream.” Even the missing credit card had an upside because it taught her to be creative when solving problems.
“I've had tough moments, but I worked through them and did everything I could to have the best time possible,” Murphy says. “I am so incredibly grateful that the chancellor took time out of his busy schedule to come to Florence and to have dinner with Natalie and me, and of course, that he was nice enough to bring me a credit card.”
Strengthening international connections
Schmidt’s visit with Murphy and Johnson came after he’d completed presentations at an international conference in Amsterdam. One presentation was on UW-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic Health System’s research agreement. His second session was on UW-Eau Claire’s sponsorship with WiSys and CoLab, which supports entrepreneurs from UW-Eau Claire and the greater region.
Following the conference, Schmidt visited UW-Eau Claire’s study abroad partner institutions in Italy.
“The goal of the visit is to celebrate the restart of study abroad,” Marchwick says. “LdM was the first partner in Europe and second overall we evacuated in spring 2020 due to COVID.”
Schmidt was impressed by the LdM campus, the quality of its faculty and the commitment of its president and her senior staff. He also was impressed with Johnson and Murphy, who he says reminded him again that UW-Eau Claire’s exceptional international programs are among the things that “seal the deal” for many students who decide to attend UW-Eau Claire.
“Students learn to view things from different perspectives by being plunged into another culture,” Schmidt says of the value of study abroad. “That experience can be a lens to view their studies back at UW-Eau Claire, and they have opportunities to share those experiences with their classmates.”