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UW's Study Abroad Program helps students see the world

Volume 13, Number 3 | May 2012

By Steve Kiggins
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Alia Scott went scuba diving in the ocean and camped in the desert. Ben Wiebers walked cobblestone sidewalks to merry festivals. Dennis Alm dove into the sea and enjoyed campfires on the beach. Megan Degenfelder rode the subway.

All while attending college in a state without an ocean or a beach, where the sidewalks are hardly ornate and where the only Subways sell made-to-order sandwiches. But Wyoming, known as home to the United States’ first national park and The Daddy of ‘em All, for its wide-open spaces and friendly people, also boasts a university with a lively Study Abroad program that ensures its students aren’t confined during their most progressive years.

“If you want to see the world,” Alm says, “come to the University of Wyoming.”

Through faculty-led programs and exchange agreements with partner institutions and third-party providers, Study Abroad provides UW students with access to innumerable locations across the world—often only at the price of tuition—to experience new cultures, meet new people and challenge themselves to learn outside of their comfort zones.

“You can watch National Geographic about other places but until you go other places, you can never really understand how the world is so different but yet so much the same,” says Scott, a Jackson Hole High School graduate who spent the fall 2011 semester in the Middle East. “I think traveling—and especially Study Abroad, where you get to actually be part of the country and see its inner workings—really connects you with the world.

“Going to different places and dropping your guard and letting yourself become immersed in the culture and the people and trying new things—even if you hate it—is probably one of the best ways to grow as a person.”

As part of its effort to better prepare students for life in a world that has become increasingly global, UW has grown its Study Abroad program by nearly 1,000 percent since 2000, when just 40 students headed overseas from Laramie. During the 2010-11 academic year, 380 UW students traveled internationally as part of their educational experience.

Coordinated by Ruth Shepherd, the UW Study Abroad program has connections across the world, making it possible for students to go to Asia, Europe, Mexico or just about anywhere else. “Our students need a better picture of the world, and internationalization is a big part of that picture,” says B. Oliver Walter, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and one of UW’s strongest proponents of internationalization experiences for students. “In terms of a liberal arts experience, which is broadening one’s perspective and appreciation for other cultures and other people, I’m convinced this is about the best thing we can do.”

It's the people who teach you

Everything on a Study Abroad trip is educational—even birthday parties. As he sat at one of the many birthday celebrations he attended while spending a semester in Germany, Ben Wiebers listened to conversations in French and Russian, sampled food from Italy and Hungary and soaked in a cultural experience that he says you “can’t get in a classroom.”

“There’s no way you can recreate that here. You can have classes, you can have small groups, you can have learning communities, you can have everything. But it doesn’t replace the fact that you’re thousands of miles from anyone that you know,” says Wiebers, a senior mathematics major from Wellington, Colo., who was convinced at his freshman orientation to go overseas for study. “I think, a lot of times, you can get complacent in college. You have your same group of friends, you go to your classes, you have the same activities that youenjoy, but you don’t really push your boundaries at all.

“Study Abroad was not only a really good opportunity for me to learn a language and get another academic experience, but also meet people I would have never met.” It’s the people who teach you the most about yourself and the wider world, says Julia Lausch, a UW master’s student who conducted her thesis research last summer in Dubai, a multicultural city in the United Arab Emirates that she describes as “representative of the global world.”

Before coming to UW, Lausch, a native Southern Californian who earned her bachelor’s degree at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, spent five years as a school teacher in Japan, Kuwait and Dubai.

“You think of the world very differently when you have a friend from another country. You actually have a face to put with that country as opposed to what we hear on the news,” says Lausch, who, along with her husband, David, a student in the Master of Public Administration program at UW, has visited more than 40 countries. “You only hear one side of the story [in the media]. I’ve gotten to hear other sides of the story.

“I have an Iraqi friend, I have a Jordanian friend, I have a Syrian friend and I have an Emirate friend,” she says. “When I’m hearing about foreign issues, it’s not just about some alien people. I understand what that means for them. That’s really valuable for me and enables me to connect with the world.” While in Israel, Scott learned a similar lesson.

When she decided to honor her Jewish heritage and study for a semester in a country long riddled by conflict, Scott says some people thought her mother was “crazy to let me go over there, by myself”—and that even she was unsure how she’d adjust to being around people who spoke a different language and lived in a way unlike her upbringing in Wyoming. It took but a short time for her to realize she had worried for naught.

“You would think that a Bedouin kid who was raised in a tent and rides a camel would be so different than you,” she says. “But then if you sit down and talk to him, you realize that he’s exactly the same as you.”

Dennis Alm finds perhaps the best words to summarize the impact of Study Abroad: “I’m more diverse, more accepting, more aware and better prepared for life,” says the junior business management major from Casper. “It’s opened a whole new world to me.”

It will change your life

She looked right, then left. It didn’t take long for Megan Degenfelder to see that she was alone among hundreds of people.

“I’d be in the subway in Beijing and look all the way down the subway and not see another white person in sight. Everyone’s staring at you, they’re talking about you—even though I couldn’t understand them—and it’s very different and a bit overwhelming,” says Degenfelder, a native of Casper who studied in China during the 2009-10 school year. “I’d never been in that place before. I was born and raised in Wyoming. I’m white. I’m typical, just a run-of-the-mill Wyoming girl.”

Degenfelder relives the experience with a smile across her face. She can look back now and see that she challenged herself—and won.

“Being in that situation gave me a completely different outlook on life,” she says. “I had to adapt, confront my fears and seek out opportunities to learn. It’s made me a better, stronger person.” The University of Wyoming makes it easy for all students to enjoy similar triumphs—thanks to a staff in the International Programs Office that students agree simplifies the process, provides guidance and offers continuous support.

“The fact that there is a whole department devoted to helping us experience the world is awesome. I know that a lot of schools have Study Abroad programs, but I really feel like this university has a drive to help kids see the world,” says Scott, who also visited Egypt and Jordan during her Study Abroad semester. “People think that it’s really hard to go abroad, or too expensive. But it’s exactly the opposite. … I have all these friends who are like, ‘Oh, I wish I could study abroad, that sounds so cool.’ You can! Go in there and just talk to somebody. You can pay nothing and go experience the world.”

And no matter where in the world you decide to go, Lausch promises it’ll change your life.

“I tell everybody they should go,” she says. “It’s one of the best things you can do to grow as a person, and I really think it’s a shame to not challenge yourself.”

Her face lights up and her voice hits another pitch. “Do it! It’s fun!”

UWYO | The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of the University of Wyoming

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