This summer a UW-L student interviewed an Egyptian who lived through the uproar of a revolution in February 2011. Another student about 2,500 miles northwest in Galway, Ireland, watched an archaeologist uncover the home of a Dark Ages clan. About 1,200 miles east of Ireland, in a major German university, a student affairs student listened to a provost discuss what higher education is like in a country where education is free.
UW-L is 30th in the nation with 435 students studying abroad during 2012-13 — the highest of all UW System schools among master’s level institutions. UW-L was above the national average in study-abroad participation with 17 percent of undergraduates studying overseas. The national average is 14 percent. Learn more about UW-L study abroad.
Throughout the year, UW-L students are all over the world learning not only about language and culture, but also gaining first-hand knowledge in their discipline.
“Not every young person gets a chance to go to a university,” notes Heidi Morrison, assistant professor of history who leads student groups to Egypt. “It’s a privilege. What goes along with that is an obligation to find and speak the truth and share what you learn about the world.”
Morrison says the students she guided through Egypt this summer learned directly through interviews with Egyptians about the Egyptian revolution. It was part of a four-credit public history course and service-learning project she organized to be taken in Egypt through the UW-L Office of International Education.
Morrison wanted students to see what Egyptians themselves say about the changes happening in Egypt rather than getting it from the U.S. media or government.
“I interviewed a man named Peter. I would say interviewing him was one of the most interesting things I have ever done,” says UW-L junior Max Kaiser. “After learning and reading about all the different events that occurred during the revolution, being able to hear it from a man who actually lived through it and was actively involved in the revolution was incredible.”
Kaiser was surprised to learn of the strong relationship between the U.S. and Egypt and how Egypt plays an integral role in the U.S. presence throughout the Middle East.
For their final project, students demonstrated how they would share the knowledge about Egypt with the world. A future teacher will create a five-day lesson plan on the revolution. A young man will write a mock policy briefing he could share as a future politician. And another student will prepare a presentation for the La Crosse Area Chamber of Commerce and public library.
Breaking down cultural barriers
Morrison notes integrating international education into curriculum is a means to break down pre-conceived ideas students have about other cultures or their own country. Kaiser recalls visiting a part of Cairo called the Trash City where all of Cairo’s garbage is collected. The people who live there process it by separating recyclables from trash. To the outsider, Trash City is an unimaginable place to live with dirt, dust and piles of garbage alongside food markets. But that was not the perspective of its people, says Kaiser.
“Unfortunately, in the culture we live in there are a lot of materialistic people,” says Kaiser. “Egypt is the most poverty stricken country I’ve ever visited and the trip really made me reflect on what is important to me and what I should care the most about.”
Jörg Vianden, assistant professor of Student Affairs Administration (SAA), also saw a shift in students’ thinking about their own culture and practices. A group of students who traveled with him to his hometown of Bonn, Germany, in April learned about higher education in a foreign context.
“Learning about how other countries approach higher education gives us a sense of what we could be doing here,” says Vianden. “If we don’t ever consider how things work in other countries, we’ll think we know the best way to do everything and maybe we don’t.”
His students were also assigned the task of reflection — writing a paper comparing and contrasting German and U.S. higher education.
“In Germany they don’t really have ‘Student Affairs Administration,’” says UW-L SAA student Kayla Piper who went on the trip. “They don’t provide that level of support to students and students don’t expect it. It makes me question what is needed in higher education. When are we serving students and when are we hand-holding students?”
SAA program graduate Colin Burns-Gilbert agrees that the experience in Germany changed his perspective on some of the traditional practices, services and opportunities today in American higher education. He was also able to teach others about his culture.
“Many of our interactions, whether it was with students, faculty or professionals, involved a reciprocal sharing of best practices, philosophies and ideas,” Burns-Gilbert says. “The Germans were just as interested in our culture of caring and serving the students as we were in their dynamic of focusing almost strictly on the academic experience of students.”
In addition to giving students an experience abroad, professors say international travel allows them to do research in other countries, document and write about their experiences to disseminate knowledge and make important connections with faculty abroad that can lead to more research opportunities and faculty exchanges.
UW-L offers great preparation for travel abroad
While many schools offer a pre-departure orientation, UW-L’s International Studies preparation is unique. Not only do students receive a pre-departure orientation, but students who travel for a semester or academic year are required to attend a one-credit course (INS 250) where they explore challenges related to international study and research such as: culture shock, intercultural sensitivity and communication and reverse culture shock. Additional optional courses, INS 251 and 252, if taken in a sequence with INS 250, satisfy a multicultural aspect of UW-L’s general education curriculum.