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UW-Eau Claire and Southern Cross University: A tale of connection and city sisterhood

| Samantha West

Although Eau Claire and Lismore, Australia, are almost 9,000 miles apart, a partnership forged between UW-Eau Claire and Southern Cross University more than 20 years ago continues to bring the people of the two cities together despite the realities of geography.

In July 1995 UW-Eau Claire and Southern Cross University, located in Lismore, signed a partnership agreement, which allowed study abroad opportunities for students beginning in the fall semester. Thanks to the ongoing relationship between the two universities, the leaders of the two cities established a formal "sister city" relationship in 2001.

Flash forward 15 years, and three local entrepreneurs who graduated from UW-Eau Claire decided to name the hotel they renovated “The Lismore” in honor of Eau Claire’s Australian sister city. And a guest of honor at the hotel's grand opening party was none other than Lismore Mayor Jenny Dowell.

The sister city relationship between the two cities was established to build an understanding between cultures, nations and people, with education being at the heart of this connection. Without the university partnership between UW-Eau Claire and SCU, no sister city relationship would’ve formed, and the elegant hotel on Gibson Street in downtown Eau Claire would likely not be named after a relatively small city on the other side of the world.

Studying abroad

Lismore has become an extremely popular study abroad destination for UW-Eau Claire students since the partnership was formed between the two universities.

Today, 652 Blugolds have studied abroad in Lismore, and 18 students have participated in the reciprocal exchange agreement. This upcoming academic year 23 UW-Eau Claire students plan to spend either their fall or spring semesters at SCU in Lismore.

Becky Wurzer, a SCU study abroad alumna, said UW-Eau Claire’s Center for International Education made the logistics of traveling, lodging and coursework a “very navigable process.”

One day she made her way to the UW-Eau Claire Study Abroad Fair with no real intentions of studying abroad, but ended up leaving the fair with very different plans.

“When I walked away (from the fair) I had registration forms to complete and was on my way to Australia before I really had a second thought about it,” Wurzer, who now works at JAMF Software in downtown Eau Claire, said.

It was a landmark occurrence, Wurzer recalled, that she had so instinctively decided to travel halfway across the world. But it was a challenge she felt she needed to face.

“I had not traveled much prior to this, and certainly wasn’t the type of person to do this without knowing anyone else going,” she said. “This was very unlike me to do at the time and was exactly the type of challenge needed to open my eyes to more opportunities.”

And Wurzer was not disappointed by the “remarkably beautiful campus” of SCU.

She stayed in SCU’s Richmond Hall, which was atop a hill even larger than the one she was forced to climb on the UW-Eau Claire campus. On her walks to class every morning, Wurzer saw wildlife from the beautiful path down the long hill, including everything from lizards to koala bears.

“My time in Australia was easily one of the best experiences in my life, as it helped me to experience and grow both personally and professionally in a way I would not have imagined,” Wurzer said.

At the same time, Wurzer said Eau Claire and Lismore’s similarities made the overall experience enlightening and comfortable at the same time.

“Lismore has a similar feel to Eau Claire in the kind of down to earth, welcoming people that live there,” she said. “It has much to offer in terms of nature and outdoor activities, but also has everything you need in one town, from shopping to nightlife to eateries and so much more.”

For Ben Michael, another SCU study abroad alumnus and current JAMF Software employee, his time in Lismore also marked a great time of learning and growth.

“Balancing classes and cultural experiences certainly taught me how to ultimately balance life,” Michael said. “I tripped up here and there, but came out the other end all right. I look back on the four months now and see that I grew a lot during that time. I feel like a more well-rounded adult because of that one choice.”

Mayor Dowell’s visit

In celebration of the Lismore Hotel’s grand opening celebration on June 23, Mayor Dowell visited Eau Claire and found many wonderful connections between the two universities and cities.

“We’ve been here for less than 24 hours, but it feels like much longer, just because it feels so comfortable,” Dowell said. “We feel at home. I think there’s a feeling of immediate friendship between people — like we speak the same language, and it’s great.”

When Dowell and her husband Ron first toured The Lismore hotel, they were “astounded” by how it was designed to pay homage to their home.

“To go in last night, and first of all to see that one of the suites has got my name on it … but then to see the features in the hotel that are very much connected to us,” Dowell said. “The wallpaper on the walls of 1920s Northern Star newspapers (the Lismore newspaper) Just to see a ‘Lismore burger’ on the menu or a ‘Lismore something’ — those things just really feel wonderful and I think our community back home is really just blown away.”

Dowell said she was extremely impressed by the beauty of the UW-Eau Claire campus and found many similarities between it and SCU.

“The campus is very beautiful. Very green and lush … and that is similar, although the vegetation is different, to Southern Cross,” Dowell said. “It looks, to us, like something you would see out of a movie; it’s so beautiful.”

As mayor, Dowell meets all the international students who study at SCU while they’re abroad, welcoming the students with an Australian morning tea that serves as a “mini introduction to Australian culture,” Dowell said.

While the students each take a photo with her, she asks which university the student comes from. Although she meets many students from universities across the United States, Dowell said the connection she feels with Blugolds is incomparable.

“I always ask where they come from and when they tell me Eau Claire, I explain if they don’t already know, that we have a sister city relationship with Eau Claire,” Dowell said. “You feel closer to those students because of that historic link, which is lovely.”

In the future, Dowell thinks that as Lismore and Eau Claire continue their redevelopment efforts, their relationship can grow.

“I think we can learn from each other about how to do things well and also learn from things that haven’t gone as well in the past," Dowell said.

Photo caption: Jenny Dowell, mayor of the city of Lismore, Australia, takes a campus tour of UW-Eau Claire with her husband, Ron, and JAMF Software staff member Julia Johnson (left) and Jenna Krosch of UW-Eau Claire's Center for International Education (right).