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National Student Exchange creates new learning opportunities for Blugolds

| Judy Berthiaume

Photo caption: Kenzie Beam spent the spring 2020 semester studying at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff through the National Student Exchange program. Her semester was cut short because of COVID-19, but she loved the experience so much that she’s doing it a second time. In the fall, she will attend a NSE-affiliated university near New York City.

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior Kenzie Beam was studying in Arizona during the spring 2020 semester when COVID-19 cut her National Student Exchange semester short.

While she was disappointed to return to the Midwest sooner than expected, she enjoyed her months at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff so much that she already has signed on for another semester of NSE.

“I felt that there was so much more to learn while being states away from my home and wanted to try another place,” Beam says of deciding on a second NSE semester. “I also figured that there is no better time than right now to go try out living somewhere else for this cheap.”

This fall, Beam will study at a university in New Jersey, just a train ride away from New York City.

“I have always wanted to try living in New York City, so I chose the closest school I could find to it,” Beam says. “The school I am attending is not technically in NYC but it's right in Jersey City, so I can easily go right over to NYC in just a few minutes.”

NSE options and opportunities

Through the NSE program, Blugolds pay UW-Eau Claire tuition but study for a semester or year at another NSE-affiliated university.

In a typical year, 30-50 Blugolds are placed for exchanges at one of the nearly 170 NSE consortium colleges and universities in the U.S., U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Puerto Rico or Canada.

The NSE program gives students access to different and often unique courses and offers them opportunities to live in and explore new regions, says Cindy Nevin, UW-Eau Claire’s NSE coordinator.

NSE students experience a new campus in a different region, take classes and earn credits, while staying on track to graduate on time from UW-Eau Claire, Nevin says.

“They do it for many reasons, including a chance to live in a different area or to look for future jobs in an area that interests them,” Nevin says. “Some do it to evaluate graduate schools or for their personal growth. There also are opportunities to study a language — French in Canada or Spanish in Puerto Rico — or to be immersed in a different culture.

“Students love the NSE adventure. They can live and explore while earning credits toward their degree. They often are amazed at the different cultures that exist within the United States.”

The NSE consortium also includes institutions that serve mostly Black, Hispanic and Asian American Native American Pacific Islander students, giving Blugolds an opportunity to attend a school that offers more diversity than UW-Eau Claire, Nevin says.

The NSE program was among the reasons Beam became a Blugold.

She loved the beauty of UW-Eau Claire’s campus and was impressed by its social work program, which she knew would be her major. Still, it was learning about the opportunities she’d have through the NSE program that convinced her that UW-Eau Claire was the right place for her.

“I knew in high school that I would want to travel in some way or another,” says Beam, a native of McFarland who plans to graduate in summer 2022 with a major in social work and a certificate in child welfare. “Once I toured UWEC and learned about the NSE, it presented a new option that I did not know about before. I would say that the NSE was really what solidified my decision.”

Once she knew she wanted to be part of NSE, Beam took her time deciding where she wanted to study. She had spent time in Arizona with her family, though she had not been to Flagstaff. Its location and beautiful setting in the mountains won her over, making it her top NSE choice.

“I was very interested in attending school somewhere with a lot of nature surrounding me and what better place than somewhere with mountains,” Beam says. “The National Student Exchange is an incredible opportunity. It allows you to try out a completely new area for the same tuition of attending UWEC. Although it would have been exciting to travel abroad, NSE was a more affordable option and allowed me to still try new places.”

While she enjoyed her time in the mountains in Arizona, Beam now is looking forward to immersing herself in big-city life on the East Coast.

“I am excited to meet new people from a different place from where I grew up, take classes with different professors with different ideas, and learn about this new city I will be living in,” Beam says.

Students can participate in NSE for two semesters. While most students do two back-to-back semesters at the same institution, they can split their time — as Beam is doing — among different years and campuses.

COVID-19 disrupted the NSE program for more than a year, but things are slowly returning to normal, Nevin says. Currently, 13 Blugolds plan to participate in NSE during the 2021-22 academic year.

UW-Eau Claire has hosted six students in the past five years and will host one NSE student during the 2021-22 academic year.

A life-changing experience

While she loved exploring the outdoors during her time in Flagstaff, Beam quickly figured out that it was the people she met there that made the experience so meaningful.

Once on campus, Beam immediately clicked with her new roommates in Flagstaff, both of whom were part of a service sorority on campus. Since they spend a lot of time with other sorority members, they encouraged her to join even though she would only be there a semester.. 

“This opened me up to meeting so many more people, the opportunity to volunteer around Flagstaff and have a little sense of community,” Beam says. “I also went on a hike and yoga trip through NAU's outdoor program, which was one of my favorite activities that I was able to do while there.

“Although my time got cut short, I still was able to make many friends. For three months, I was able to explore all over Arizona with friends, attend classes across campus, go on university-sponsored trips, and so much more.”

While she still wonders how much more she could have done if the pandemic had not forced her home early, she is thankful she was able to stay safe and had enough time there to create many wonderful memories, Beam says.

Looking to the future

Beam knew coming into college that she wanted to study social work, a field that has long been of interest to her.

“I loved volunteering while growing up and always knew that I wanted to do something that revolved around helping people,” Beam says. “While I was shadowing someone at the Dane County Courthouse in Madison, I talked with a social worker. I did not know what social workers were until she explained it, and she explained exactly what I wanted to do with my career. Ever since then, I knew it was social work!”

While she is not yet sure exactly what path she hopes to follow in her social work career, the NSE program has broadened her thinking about where her journey might take her.

“I would say that NSE has opened my eyes to moving to new places,” Beam says. “Now that I have successfully done one exchange and am about to do another, it makes me confident to know that I can adapt to different environments. Although change can be scary, this has shown me that I can push past that and find myself somewhere new.”