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Semester Abroad Expands Students' Worldview

By Kari Johnson
UW-RF News Bureau

FEB. 18, 2005--Nearly a dozen University of Wisconsin-River Falls students returned from Europe last fall with a global perspective.

The program started in 1963 when the late sociology professor Robert Bailey designed a way for "students to experience Europe in an intimate way," said Brad Gee, co-director of SAE.

Bailey wanted students to experience Europe as he had, by being immersed in another world. One man's love for international travel has become a legacy as SAE enters its 42nd year as UW-RF's oldest study abroad program.

The program has a long-running reputation of success, says Gee, with students conducting fascinating research projects spanning the European continent, providing them with experiences that read like adventure novels.

In the past, students have studied architecture in Spain, tourism in Greece, cultural differences in Italy, ceramics in Portugal, dairy operations in the Netherlands, and biotechnology in Ireland, among many other topics.

The SAE program is a long-term commitment, says Gee. Students who are a junior standing or higher and interested in the program must attend meetings the spring semester before they leave in the fall. At these meetings, students are prepped with practical knowledge about travel and also begin to develop their research projects.

The prospect of developing an independent research project can be daunting, says Gee, who insists the students are not alone. "Designing the research project is a cooperative effort, a triangle encompassing the student, their project adviser and the SAE staff member." With support during the project development phase, students confidently establish the direction they will take and submit their proposal in April.

The emphasis of the program is on independent study. Students develop contacts, plan living arrangements, modes of travel, and where they will conduct research. "Students take ownership of the project by carrying out their own plans and meeting their goals. To do this they must have self-discipline," said Gee.

And they do as fall 2003 participant Jamie Wise noted. "Being on my own for 100 days, having almost complete freedom of everything I did on every day that I was in Europe has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I was able to grow up in a sense that I hadn't been able to do before."

Even with preparation, once students get to Europe they need to be flexible. Jen Dolen, a fall 2004 student, echoes this notion. "Even with the most careful planning, it's inevitable that a students' project will shift and change… I was moving around a lot, and was flexible enough to take the advice of those I met—this is an important thing for students to learn…to adjust their plans and heed good advice."

In the fall, the students head to Europe with a group leader. The first destination is Paris, where they spend a week getting used to a major city. Andrew Polski, a fall 2004 participant, enjoyed the orientation. "The one week in Paris is set up to help students become fully prepared for the trip, and I feel that it couldn't be set up better."

After a week, the students are released, given a head start by the group leader, who makes rounds checking in with each student and the progress of their project. Gee said the group leader is many things to the students—from a practical resource to a friendly face—when they are lonely.

"Solitude is a great avenue to personal growth and strength, but can leave room for loneliness," said Dolen. "Any student who is concerned about such things should be comforted to know that the SAE group adviser is there to help them."

At the end of the research period, the students all meet in a location chosen by the group leader. This is a time for the students to share travel experiences, relax and regroup for their last month, during which they can travel, finish up research or begin writing their research paper. Most opt to travel. "Each student's research paper is due the Friday after spring break during the spring semester following their abroad experience," said Gee.

An experience of this kind teaches students many things about the world and about themselves. Gee notes students learn self-reliance, independence, and self- confidence. Although three-and-a-half months is a relatively brief experience, Gee comments it "looms large in their memories."

Students agree. "This experience has made me stronger," says Wise. "I am also much more confident with myself and the things that I do in my life, whether they be personal, academic or professional."

Programs like SAE answer the need to give students a global experience at UW-RF, said Gee. In an increasingly globalized world, the situation of being immersed in another culture, where there is no barrier between the student and culture, provides an opportunity to learn on both sides. "It's not just a one-way street," says Gee. "You are teaching others about yourself and your country."

Studying abroad allows students to dispel their own misconceptions about other cultures as well as others' misconceptions about Americans. International Programs Director Brent Greene agrees. "Our students serve as ambassadors," he says, and they have a very powerful role when it comes to shaping the "American" image abroad.

SAE is one of several international programs on campus that help to make the campus a global community and serves to increase global understanding, says Greene. Studying abroad, Greene adds, "gives UW-RF world knowledge awareness," that is "our one true hope for true world peace."

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Last updated: Tuesday, 22-Jun-2010 16:21:19 Central Daylight Time

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