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Why do the liberal arts matter?

| Judy Berthiaume

Why do the liberal arts matter?

Ask Hailey Nelson, a UW-Eau Claire communication sciences and disorders major who spent three weeks in January studying geography and culture in a rainforest in South America.

Hailey knew she wanted to have an international experience during her college years, but with a packed schedule, finding time to study abroad was a challenge if she wanted to graduate on time.

So when she discovered a three-week Winterim program in Ecuador she jumped at the chance to immerse herself in a new culture, while also getting an up-close look at what it might be like to be a Peace Corps volunteer, something she’s long hoped to do after she graduates.

The catch?

The immersion program and prerequisite fall course, “Culture and Geography in Ecuador,” were clearly outside her usual academic sphere.

She enrolled anyway knowing it was her chance to have that international experience she was craving.

“I went on this immersion with little knowledge or experience with geography or culture, assuming I’d learn a lot about these subjects,” says Hailey, a junior Honors student from Maple Grove, Minnesota. “What I did not know was that while there, I’d end up drawing many connections between communication sciences and disorders and geography — one subject area I know well and the other I knew little about.

“I didn’t even consider that by learning about the culture and geography of Ecuador, I’d find more inspiration and passion for being a speech-language pathologist.”

While in Ecuador, rather than connect with a Peace Corps volunteer as planned, Hailey instead spent time with a child who has a cleft palate, a young girl with a cognitive disability, and someone who has a form of stuttering that she’d not previously considered.

Meeting those Ecuadorians — and seeing how the region’s cultural norms influence how their families and others treat them — has Hailey thinking a bit differently about her future aspirations.

While the Peace Corps is still a possibility, she also is exploring other ways she could use her knowledge and skills to make a difference in the world.

“I now aspire to be on a cleft palate/lip team that travels internationally,” Hailey says. “I’m also extremely interested and passionate about people-first language and changing perceptions of those with disabilities. I want to help change perceptions internationally, but also here in Eau Claire. I see this as a huge part of my future career and my goals as a professional speech therapist.”

It turns out that by embracing the liberal arts, Hailey’s perspective on the world — and her place in it — changed in meaningful ways.

“I learned to appreciate a completely new way of life and see different values, and, much to my surprise, I learned more about my own field of study,” Hailey says. “Going forward, I have a whole new appreciation for the liberal arts at our university.”

Photo caption: Blugold Hailey Nelson (right) and her host sister spent time at her host family’s home making necklaces during Nelson’s immersion program in Ecuador. The necklaces were for the traditional Kichwa dance that was held later that day.