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The international student experience hits the road through intercultural immersion programs at UWEC

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: The January intercultural immersion program to Hawaii was called "Cultural Preservation Through Tourism," which provided a hands-on connection with the land and Indigenous culture of the island state.

For the 2023-24 academic year, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire welcomed 241 international students arriving here from 31 countries to live and study. These students come here for instruction, of course, but they also choose international education to experience new places and cultures. Those enriching experiences can be further enhanced through the intercultural immersion programs offered at UW-Eau Claire.  

The Center for International Education (CIE) and the Office of Intercultural Immersion Programs emphasize that all students are eligible to participate in the many intercultural immersion programs at UWEC. This includes all international students.

“Our cultural immersion programs offer international students the chance to expand their academic and cultural learning and overall American experience,” says Chinese program manager Yiliu Yang. 

International students often seek travel within the U.S., and domestic intercultural immersion programs provide unique options to travel with a purpose and often academic credit.

“Traveling and learning alongside faculty, staff and other students lets these students feel safe and secure. It is a significant factor that they and their parents consider when making decisions about travel during their time here,” Yang says. 

This past January, two students from China took part in a cultural immersion in Hawaii called “Cultural Preservation through Tourism,” a program led by director of Multicultural Student Services Caitlin Lee, and campus Upward Bound coordinator May Xiong.

Rong (Krystal) Wang and Yangguang Cheng are enrolled at UW-Eau Claire through the 1+2+1 dual-degree program with the Changshu Institute of Technology, a program making up just over half of the total international enrollment.   

Xiong says that it was exciting for the Chinese students to experience the deep dive into the people and places of Hawaii, and it added useful perspective to the fellow students.

“As we all learned about Hawaii together, it was nice that Rong and Yangguang shared with the group the many similarities they observed with their heritage and beliefs. They compared and contrasted for us Chinese and Hawaiian myths, stories of origins and overall land structures, which added even more dimension to our overall experience.”

We asked the students to summarize their immersion experiences through a short Q&A series, hoping to let all Blugold students in on some of the magic that happens during the transformative intercultural immersion opportunities at UW-Eau Claire.

Taking their international studies a bit further through immersion

Female student posing on a high Hawaiian shoreline over the sunset

Rong (Krystal) Wang
Materials science and engineering major
Hometown: Nantong City, Jiangsu Province

How did you learn about the immersion program in Hawaii and what interested you most about it? 

I have enjoyed doing some travel when we have breaks; I’ve been to San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Orlando. My budget was limited for the last semester, but after applying for funding earmarked for immersion programs, I was able to go. I’ve always wanted to go to Hawaii, which was an added interest for me in this learning opportunity.

What were the most significant things you learned about Hawaii that you will want to remember? 

As a group we did a lot of interesting things, like volunteering to help locals maintain several locations of interest to tourists. We had a full-day tour in the Polynesian Cultural Center, which was fun and informative about the Indigenous culture. I learned that Hawaii faces many challenges that the mainland U.S. does not share, issues that require special treatment and attention from the federal government.

What advice about cultural experiences would you have for current or future international students studying at UW-Eau Claire? 

UWEC not only focuses on academics, but also has many extracurricular activities to add to the college experience. In addition to classes, students can do research and presentations with faculty. There are also many student organizations to enrich student life.

I would tell them to be open-minded about all people and experiences, to explore clubs, campus events and all the outdoor activities. Traveling is great but do it wisely and on a planned budget. And most important is to immerse yourself in the local culture for a fulfilling experience.

Yangguang Chen in Hawaii for immersion 2024, holding to shrimp toward camera

Yangguang Chen
Computer science major
Hometown: Wuxi, Jiangsu Province

What made you want to study abroad and how did you choose UW-Eau Claire? 

First, this university had the majors I wanted to study, and the dual degree can improve my competitiveness. Secondly, I wanted to broaden my horizons and experience different cultures, to see different lives. Wisconsin has friendly people, beautiful scenery and snow (it rarely snowed where I used to live). Compared with other programs I looked at, UW-Eau Claire is the safest and most economical.

How did your experience as a student at UWEC prepare you for traveling you did on your own and the idea to take part in the Hawaii immersion program? 

After being on campus for a while and building by language skills, I grew much more confident and took advantage of opportunities to travel to San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, Orlando and Miami.

I am happy that I went on the immersion to Hawaii. The natural scenery is absolutely beautiful, and the Hawaiian culture is even more attractive to me. Learning with other students and faculty helped me take in the beauty and culture all together.

The way to learn on this kind of immersion has a lot of advantages. Compared to sitting in the classroom, immersive learning allowed me work in the mud, move rocks and clean fishponds, listening to the locals talk. It makes everything I learned about the land and people feel more real and touching.

What is something thing you learned in Hawaii that surprised you or that you want to learn more about? 

Hawaiian tattoos are cool. They are mostly symbols or patterns that represent different identities and have different social meanings. This reminds me of traditional Chinese patterns, which often contain people’s imagination and expectations for a better life. Perhaps we can see history from these graphics and imagine ancient people's understanding of the world.

More information  

For more information about intercultural immersions at UWEC, visit the immersion experiences website. If you are an international student interested in an intercultural immersion program, contact the Center for International Education at or 715-836-4411.