Passion for science, languages shapes grad's Blugold experience

| Judy Berthiaume

When Rachyl Hietpas came to UW-Eau Claire she brought with her a love of science and a curiosity about the world.

Four years later, she’s graduating with degrees in biology and Spanish, and has an even greater interest in and passion for new people, cultures and languages.

The Honors student from Little Chute also knows how she will use the knowledge she’s gained through her studies and her many experiences as a Blugold, which included everything from studying abroad to collaborating on real-world research.

“Doing research solidified for me that linguistics is what I want to do with my life,” Hietpas says. “Language is such an integral part of our lives as humans and affects so much of what we do. I want to be part of unraveling the puzzle that is human language, and that puzzle gets even more interesting when you add a second, third, or even more languages for the brain to process and use.”

She’s now interested in studying the neuro- and psycholinguistics of bilingualism, which looks at how the brain produces and processes two languages and how that might be similar to or different from processing only one language.

“I’m happy I found this area because it combines my interest in science and neuroscience with my love of language,” Hietpas says.

This fall, she will begin her graduate studies in Hispanic linguistics at Pennsylvania State University.

Her goal, she says, is to someday be a professor of linguistics so she can research language and inspire future generations to see the beauty and complexity of languages.

The project that inspired her love for research involved studying the postvernacular Dutch in Wisconsin with her faculty mentor, Dr. Josh Brown, an associate professor of languages.

If a vernacular is the language of a community or group, then postvernacular means what remains of that language when it is no longer the dominant language of a community or group, Hietpas says.

“This is important to study because so many of our world's languages are dying so it’s crucial to know what remains when a language dies and what effect it has on a community,” Hietpas says. “Our research specifically looks at the postvernacular Dutch found in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin. This is the area I am from, and I have Dutch ancestry, so the research is very meaningful to me.”

The researchers conducted historical background research on the area and visited the Fox Valley to interview people about their language practices.

They then analyzed the interviews for Dutch words the participants use in their English, any phonological transfer from Dutch into English, and feelings positive or negative toward Dutch or English. They also evaluated whether there are any revitalization attempts for the Dutch language or culture in the area.

Hietpas has presented her research at the Workshop on Immigrant Languages in the Americas and at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

While her research focused on the Dutch in northeastern Wisconsin, Hietpas’ experiences as a Blugold took her far beyond Wisconsin.

“I knew when I came to college I really wanted to study abroad, and I specifically wanted to study in Europe because I’d never been there before,” Hietpas says. “I wanted to visit the places I learned about in history class or had only ever seen in movies or TV shows.”

Hietpas studied abroad twice, first for a semester in England and then a summer in Costa Rica.

The two international experiences were very different, but both were life-changing, she says.

“Going to school in Eau Claire, I’m three hours away from home, but that's nothing compared to being a whole ocean away,” Hietpas says. “It helped me to become more independent, and more globally and culturally aware.”

Hietpas chose to study in the United Kingdom because she could take biology classes there, allowing her to spend a semester abroad while staying on track to meet her goal of graduating in four years.

A fan of the popular television show "Downton Abbey," she was drawn specifically to the program at Harlaxton College in England because “I could not miss the opportunity of living in a Victorian-era manor house for a semester.”

Taking ecology and animal zoology classes at Harlaxton was especially interesting because the classes took her outside the college, giving her more opportunities to learn about the region, she says.

“The professor tried to make the classes unique to studying in the U.K.,” Hietpas says. “During lectures, he highlighted the discoveries and accomplishments of British scientists, and for labs, we took field trips to local nature reserves, such as the famous Sherwood Forest.

“I also took a British studies course in which we had the daunting task of trying to cover all of the U.K.'s history in one semester. It was honestly one of my most favorite courses. I learned so much and felt like I could apply so much of what I was learning in class to what I was experiencing living in the country.”

When she wasn't studying or going to classes, she was exploring the U.K. and beyond.

“I even got to visit my beloved Highclere Castle, the real-life version of Downton Abbey,” Hietpas says.

Determined to strengthen her Spanish language skills and immerse herself in yet another new culture, Hietpas also spent a summer studying in San Isidro de Heredia, Costa Rica.

“Costa Rica is a hotbed for biodiversity and ecotourism, so it called to the biologist in me,” Hietpas says.

Since classes were taught in Spanish and she lived with a host family who spoke only Spanish, she had plenty of opportunities to strengthen her language skills.

Among the highlights of her summer in Costa Rica was a surprise introduction to the country’s leader.

“I think the coolest experience I had in Costa Rica was when, as a class, we visited La Casa Presidencial, which is basically their White House except the president only works and doesn't live there,” Hietpas says. “While we were touring it, the president of Costa Rica took some time to come meet us, shake our hands and take a picture with us.

“I still can't believe it sometimes. How many people can say they've met the president of a country?”

With that and so many other experiences in mind, Hietpas says UW-Eau Claire has prepared her well for future success.

“Getting a four-year degree can be expensive but going here I got a top-notch degree and education without having to shell out a fortune,” Hietpas says. “I’ve had a really great experience at UW-Eau Claire.

“I had the freedom and opportunities to explore my interests, while also being well-prepared to pursue a career or graduate school.” 

Photo caption: Blugold Rachyl Hietpas will graduate in May with degrees in biology and Spanish, and with a passion for new people, cultures and languages.