It takes dedication, perseverance and determination for the world’s best athletes to reach the Olympics, just as it did for Uyen Trinh ’21 to be a part of the behind-the-scenes efforts at the Summer Games in Tokyo. She was there to gain global career experience while working as an accountant in the Finance Department of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS).
OBS was established through the International Olympic Committee in 2001 to produce live television, radio and digital coverage of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Organizations such as the New York Times and NBC set up, along with OBS, at Tokyo Big Sight, an international exhibition center composed of the International Broadcast Center and the Main Press Center as the Games began.
Trinh, an international student from Vietnam majoring in business and psychology with a minor in Japanese at K, played important roles processing paperwork, receipts, documents and bills for the Olympic Games while stationed in the International Broadcasting Center. A typical six-day workweek involved a one-hour commute on the subway, a trip through security and working from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day with the Olympics, lasting about a month.
Trinh gained the opportunity while studying abroad through K at Waseda University in Tokyo in 2019. At that time, a friend from the university’s Tae Kwon Do club told her about training for a position at the Olympics.
“After Tae Kwon Do practice that night, I looked up OBS right away because it sounded like a fascinating opportunity,” Trinh said. “I found out the application deadline was a day or two later, so I filled out and submitted the application right away in one sitting.”
Trinh then proceeded to interview for the accounting position.
“In the interviews, I told them I wanted to work for the Olympics because watching the Games has always given me unforgettable feelings,” she said. “And the Japanese people had been treating me really well. I thought Tokyo 2020 was a great opportunity to present Japan to the world. It was a chance for me to return the favor of their kindness and help deliver a positive image of Japan.”
Her interest in accounting made the impression she left with her interviewers even more favorable.
“I said that I wanted to do accounting because I’d been keeping track of my personal expenses and it really excited me to see numbers matching up,” Trinh said. “A week later I got a certificate saying I was qualified to work for the Olympics.”
However, in March 2020, COVID-19 began spreading, forcing Trinh to leave Japan and putting the Games in doubt.
“I still kept a close eye on the Olympics and was disheartened when they decided to postpone the Games. I questioned my chances of coming back,” Trinh said. “September 2020 was the first time I heard back from them. They asked, ‘Are you still interested in working for the Olympics?’ I thought, ‘What do you mean? This is everything I have been waiting for.’ All the logistics afterward in preparation for my departure to Japan were completed via email and the OBS portal website. I received their welcome package in February 2021 with an accreditation card, which served as my visa to enter Japan. There were a lot of requirements regarding COVID that made the week before the flight especially stressful.”
Upon her return to Japan, COVID-19 regulations required her to quarantine at a hotel for the first 14 days. She was restricted to commuting only between the hotel, OBS and a convenience store next to the hotel. After those weeks, a former host family from her time on study abroad welcomed her to stay with them.
“I learned to treasure every relationship I had with people. You never know what kind of opportunity anyone could bring to you and what your relationship could grow to be. Most of my colleagues were from countries other than Japan like Spain, Bangladesh and Greece. It’s just wonderful to think that working for the Olympics has enabled people from all over the world to meet and get to know each other regardless of the pandemic. Returning to Japan this time also made me realize how many meaningful relationships I have made during only six months of study abroad. This whole adventure was terrific and I’m so glad I was able to make it. Different from the abrupt departure last time because of COVID, I left Japan this time in peace and with more confidence in myself. This valuable experience will set the stage for my career in finance after K.”
When COVID-19 forced Kalamazoo College to pause its study abroad programs last year, many juniors feared they would lose out on a life-changing opportunity. Delaying it a year is usually not possible with academic obstacles. Plus, varied pandemic protocols continue to make it difficult for students to travel at all.
“If you think about the preparations, the considerations and the protocols that we had to implement for students to be on campus in the last year, just multiply that by 50 for study abroad,” Center for International Programs (CIP) Executive Director Margaret Wiedenhoeft said. “It’s one thing for our international partners to have an academic plan. It’s another to think about all the components and putting them together to offer a meaningful program.”
However, students still had hope and refused to give up.
“When they realized they wouldn’t be going abroad as juniors, we had quite a few determined students who said, ‘I’m going as a senior. How do I make this work?’” Wiedenhoeft said.
Combine that desire with a flexible faculty that recognizes the importance of international immersion, plus a lot of hard work from the CIP, and K had a game plan to restart study abroad, especially for this year’s seniors. Their combined efforts and the availability of international partners are allowing about 50 seniors, in addition to the regular batch of juniors, to go abroad—about 161 students in total in study abroad and study away. That’s proving to be a point of pride at K and a significant number for any Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) school.
“When I talk to my colleagues at other colleges and I tell them how many students we have abroad, their responses are genuinely full of joy and envy for these students,” Wiedenhoeft said. “There are other schools sending students abroad right now, but we definitely have a significantly higher number of students going abroad compared to our peers.”
More than 50 study abroad programs are typically available to K students and most of them are open again by meeting local protocols and health restrictions. Programs this year include two interim opportunities in Lyon, France, and Lüneburg, Germany, which might at some point become yearly destinations. There also are more permanent options opening for the first time in London and Belfast, which are launching a year late because of the COVID-19 hiatus.
Wiedenhoeft said the united effort across campus to make these programs possible should help newer students see the importance of visiting the CIP early and often should they desire a study abroad opportunity.
“I think this underscores our willingness to be flexible and support students who want to include a study abroad component as part of their experience at K,” she said. “It may not be exactly what the student had initially planned when they first arrived. But for students who are flexible and willing to adjust some of their expectations, we can do our best to work with students and make sure that they achieve that goal of getting off campus.”
Wiedenhoeft added students largely have expressed gratitude over study abroad restarting and their experiences, especially the seniors, even when additional COVID-19 protocols are required. For example, students who are now in Thailand and South Korea had to quarantine at a hotel for two weeks for the sake of public health laws.
“That speaks to the type of students we have at K,” she said. “They’ve demonstrated a lot of adaptability and flexibility. As it got closer, they got very excited and we were giving them very specific instructions. I think those instructions made it more intimidating to think about traveling. But the students we’ve heard from, including those who had to quarantine, are just excited to be abroad.”
Since 2001, the Gilman scholarship has given more than 33,000 students with limited financial means up to $5,000 to study or intern abroad. By going abroad, recipients develop skills critical to national security and economic prosperity.
Angela Hernandez and Anna Canales, both ’24, are expected to study in Japan. Caelan Frazier ’24 plans to visit Northern Ireland. Natalie Barber ’23, after deferring her award as a result of the pandemic last year, will travel to Costa Rica this year.
All the opportunities hinge on the host country’s progress with the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Frazier, for one, is optimistic his program will proceed as planned with arriving in Belfast, Ireland, in September.
“While I am there, I hope to increase my knowledge in STEM, specifically chemistry and computer science, in order to be more experienced for future jobs,” Frazier said. “Not only that, I want to learn a lot more about the culture and everyday life in Northern Ireland. I have not actually traveled abroad before. I feel that it is important for me to return with a better understanding of life outside of America. Since social norms and cultural conflicts will be so different, I want to be able to take in all the new information and apply it to my own life.”
By awarding the funds competitively to students with limited financial means, the program assures that students from traditionally underrepresented groups will participate. Applicants must be U.S. citizens, undergraduate students in good standing at their institutions and federal Pell Grant recipients.
“As an African-American individual, I feel that having the opportunity to travel abroad is not a common occurrence,” Frazier said. “It is only through scholarships such as the Gilman scholarship that I am able to accept the opportunity to study abroad. That is why I am incredibly grateful to be offered this opportunity and I want to make sure I make the most of my experience.”
Seven Kalamazoo College representatives, including six from the Class of 2021, are receiving high honors from the federal government that will provide them with international learning opportunities in the upcoming academic year.
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program offers fellowships to graduating seniors, graduate students, young professionals and artists so they may teach English, perform research or study abroad for one academic year.
In some cases, program timing remains up in the air due to lingering issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic around the world. However, recipients of Fulbright grants are selected as a result of their academic or professional achievement, as well as demonstrated leadership potential in their fields, making the recognition an honor. Here are this year’s K-connected recipients.
During her study abroad experience, Pelak developed an infected blister after taking a ropes course and needed to be treated at a hospital, where she was fascinated with the Hungarian health care system.
Global health care systems inspired Pelak to look for opportunities to go abroad again. While she was writing her senior integrated project (SIP) on Cesarean section rates in the United States through a feminist and intersectional lens, Pelak learned about the research of Professor Hannah Dahlen, a midwifery scholar at Western Sydney.
“As part of the application process, Professor Dahlen wrote a letter of research invitation for me,” Pelak said. “I expect to further gain a global perspective on health care and health care systems. I also expect to become a more independent and well-rounded individual who is able to incorporate the lessons and experiences from the Australia system of care and way of life to my future work as an obstetrician-gynecologist in the United States.”
Katherine Miller-Purrenhage ’21
Katherine Miller-Purrenhage, a double major in music and German with a minor in philosophy at K, will serve as an English teaching assistant in Germany at E.T.A Hoffmann-Gymnasium Bamberg and Gymnasium Höchstadt a.d. Aisch, as she splits time between the cities of Bamberg and Höchstadt.
Miller-Purrenhage participated in ensembles such as the Kalamazoo Philharmonia, Academy Street Winds and College Singers. She also was a member of the Delta Phi Alpha National German Honor Society, and served the German department as a teaching assistant during her time at K. Off campus, she volunteered with El Concilio, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the Latinx community in greater Kalamazoo.
Her study abroad experiences in Erlangen, Germany, piqued her interest in the Fulbright program as she interned at a German middle school where she helped teach in the German as a Second Language and English classrooms.
“I loved teaching and learning about educational spaces that ought to be uplifting, and what I as an educator could do to make them that way so every student felt included and celebrated,” Miller-Purrenhage said. “I expect this experience will be very different than when I studied abroad because I’ll be able to focus more on bonding with my community. This will benefit me as I learn to grow and better participate in cultural exchange while immersing myself in the German language again.”
Sophia Goebel ’21
Sophia Goebel, a critical ethnic studies and political science double major at K, will be an English teaching assistant at the University of Malaga in Spain. There, she will continue building the teaching skills she established on study abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she developed and facilitated an expressive-arts workshop to explore the topic of communal territories with students from San Martín Huamelulpan, an indigenous community.
“I loved being able to connect with the participants in Oaxaca and learning alongside them,” Goebel said. “I spent some time assisting in their English lessons and it was so much fun to think about my language from the perspective of a language learner and brainstorm how best to teach them pronunciation or vocabulary. In turn, they helped teach me Spanish. That inspired me to try to spend more time in an intercultural, interlingual type of learning space through Fulbright, and I also wanted to spend more time exploring the role of teacher.
“I hope to build a lot of new relationships and figure out how to establish a life for myself without the crutch of my school community,” she added. “I’m excited to learn more about who I am outside of being a student. I aim to continue learning about pedagogy, something we explored a lot at the writing center, and developing as a teacher, facilitator and mentor. I’m also really trying to improve my Spanish. I’m very excited to learn more about the history and culture of Spain, especially after learning a little bit about the country’s politics this past year in a course at K. I hope to develop a more compassionate view of U.S. culture and identify elements that are meaningful and important to me, something which I anticipate will be somewhat of a challenge.”
Molly Roberts ’21
Molly Roberts, a French and psychology double major at K, had the misfortune of missing out on two opportunities to study abroad. First, she was the only applicant interested in a spring short-term experience in Strasbourg, France, during her sophomore year, forcing the trip’s cancellation. Then, COVID-19 spread across the world during her junior year.
“I still yearned to be immersed in the French language and culture,” Roberts said. “In addition, graduate school is something that I’ve been interested in pursuing for a while. When I found a master’s degree program with an adviser, Dr. Fabien D’Hondt, who shared similar passions to me and had a research project in the field of neuroscience focusing on PTSD, a Fulbright scholarship seemed like the next logical step in my career path.”
Roberts expects her education to benefit from her research opportunities in France, but she’ll also be working for the Centre Nationale de Ressources et de Résilience (CN2R), an organization that takes current PTSD-focused research and puts it into practice to hep trauma survivors.
“This groundbreaking, accessible research-to-practice approach is what I expect to bring back with me to the States,” she said.
Margaret Totten ’21
As a Fulbright honoree, Margaret Totten will serve as an English teaching assistant in Thailand, a place she knows well from her time on study abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
“I had hoped to return to continue learning about Thai language, culture and the natural environment,” said Totten, who had a computer science major, a math minor and an environmental studies concentration at K. “One of my major goals is to improve my Thai speaking skills and form meaningful relationships with people in my host community.”
Nina Szalkiewicz ’21
Nina Szalkiewicz, a business major and German minor at K, will follow in the footsteps of Georgie Andrews ’20, who served this past academic year as an English teaching assistant in Austria through Fulbright.
Szalkiewicz first went abroad through K when she spent six months in Bonn, Germany, leading to what she called her wonderful and surprising experiences studying German, thereby creating her interest in Fulbright.
“By pushing my boundaries and opening myself up to new cultures and customs, I grew tremendously as an individual which has changed my perspective toward my life,” Szalkiewicz said. “I began considering Fulbright more intently after reflecting on my Intercultural Research Project (ICRP) at the Friedrich-Ebert-Gymnasium. Much to my surprise, teaching and mentoring at this German middle school was one of my most enjoyable endeavors and something I gained the most from.”
Evelyn Rosero ’13
Evelyn Rosero was a human development and social relations major at K, leading to two years of volunteer work in Detroit with Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that finds teachers for low-income schools. Now, she’s a teacher in East Los Angeles, California, who wants to gain a global perspective on education while serving Fulbright as an English teaching assistant in South Korea.
On a personal note, she’s happy South Korea is her assigned destination because she’s a big fan of the South Korean boy band BTS and hopes to see one of their concerts. However, her primary goals are professional and developed with a philanthropic heart. She wants to find connections between Korean students’ identities and English-language content; share her American identity to engage in dialogue; continue learning Korean to empathize better with her students; and grow beyond her personal comfort zones.
“I am really excited to partake in this experience, especially as an educator,” Rosero said. “Even though I have been teaching for eight years, there is still so much to learn. As a foreigner, I will educate myself on my students’ Korean background and the community in which they reside.”
About the Fulbright U.S. Student Program
Since 1946, the Fulbright Program has provided more than 380,000 participants, chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential, with opportunities to exchange ideas and contribute to solutions to shared international concerns. More than 1,900 U.S. students, artists and young professionals in more than 100 fields of study are offered Fulbright Program grants to study, teach English and conduct research in more than 140 countries throughout the world each year. In addition, about 4,000 foreign Fulbright students and scholars come to the United States annually to study, lecture, conduct research and teach foreign languages.
For more information about the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, visit its website.
Kalamazoo College’s excellence is again featured in the annual Fiske Guide to Colleges, a selective look at about 300 higher-education institutions in the United States, Canada and the U.K.
The guide’s readers discover institutional personalities based on a broad range of subjects including the student body, academics, social life, financial aid, campus setting, housing, food and extracurricular activities. The book also includes a quiz to help students understand what they’re looking for in a college, lists of strong programs and popular majors at each institution, indexes that break down schools by state and price, and ratings regarding academics and quality of life.
In the 2022 version, available now, the publisher Sourcebooks says K students “pursue a liberal arts curriculum that includes language proficiency, a first-year writing seminar, sophomore and senior seminars, as well as a senior individualized project—directed research, a creative piece, or a traditional thesis—basically anything that caps off each student’s education in some meaningful way.”
In addition to senior integrated projects promoting independent scholarship opportunities, the guide praises other tenets of the K-Plan, the College’s four-part, integrated approach to education, including:
Rigorous academics. The flexibility and rigor of K’s curriculum provides students with a customized academic experience.
Experiential education. Students connect classroom learning with real-world experience by completing career development internships or externships, participating in civic engagement and service-learning projects, and getting involved in social justice leadership work.
International and intercultural experience. Students choose from 56 study abroad programs in 29 countries across six continents. A biology major interviewed by the publisher remarks on how easy it is for students to take advantage of the opportunity, noting, “Kalamazoo College does study abroad so well that it seems ridiculous not to take advantage of this opportunity. They make it financially accessible and ensure that you won’t fall behind by going abroad.”
“K’s academic terms may be fast-paced and the workload demanding, but students are given the flexibility to pursue their interests through individualized projects and off-campus exploration,” the Guide to Colleges says. “The result, says a senior, is a student body defined by open-minded, global citizens.”
A Kalamazoo College representative is enhancing his skills in Chinese this summer through a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship (CLS).
Daniel Mota-Villegas ’21 is among about 700 scholars currently in the CLS program, which actively recruits in regions that have been historically under-represented in international education. The opportunity enables those chosen to gain critical language and cultural skills in areas vital to U.S. economic competitiveness and national security.
Since 2006, CLS has awarded scholarships to more than 8,000 students while building respect and positive relations between Americans and citizens of other countries. CLS normally sends scholars to countries where they fully immerse themselves in the language of their choice, but the lingering effects of COVID-19 are requiring about 30 hours a week of virtual learning and cultural activities instead.
Nonetheless, “it’s been a very rewarding experience and it’s everything that I imagined it would be,” Mota-Villegas said. “It’s an intensive Chinese program that pushes me to expand on what I already know about Chinese language and culture. We learn upwards of 70 characters each day.”
Mota-Villegas spoke Spanish in his home life growing up and never considered learning another language—and taking those opportunities to see the world—until he attended K. At that time, he enrolled in his first Mandarin Chinese class and developed a fascination with China, its society and its values. In his sophomore year, he learned about China’s complex relationship with Taiwan, fueling his desire to study abroad and gain a deeper understanding of international relations.
In his study abroad experience, Mota-Villegas was among four K students in China in January 2020 when the pandemic began spreading, forcing students to return home early. However, he hopes to return to East Asia for an international master’s program in Asia Pacific studies at National ChengChi University in Taipei, Taiwan this fall while examining the complex relationships between China, Japan and Taiwan.
“The opportunities to continue practicing Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan will be abundant,” he said of his upcoming master’s experience. “I will not have to be sitting in a classroom to study because I’ll be outside, engaging with people in the community who have firsthand experience dealing with mainland China and Japan.”
Mota-Villegas wants his experiences at K, with CLS and in his master’s program to provide a springboard to a career in the foreign service, where he would promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad.
“I’d be open to traveling anywhere,” he said. “I love learning about languages and culture. My dream job would be to work in mainland China, Taiwan or anywhere else in East Asia. I’m fascinated with East Asia, with all its history and culture, and CLS is giving me more experience with all of them.”
The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs announced Monday that Kalamazoo College is among the top producers of Fulbright recipients among colleges and universities for the 2020-21 academic year.
Six K representatives out of 15 applicants were named Fulbright recipients, placing the College among the top-producing bachelor’s institutions for the third time in the last four years. It was the most recipients among colleges of K’s category in Michigan.
Many candidates apply for the Fulbright Program as graduating seniors, though alumni may apply as well. Graduating seniors apply through their institution. Alumni can apply through their institution or as at-large candidates.
“This recognition shows how our students desire the cultural experiences they gain from being abroad, and they get those experiences through their opportunities at K,” Center for International Programs Executive Director Margaret Wiedenhoeft said. “It shows that our faculty and international partners inspire and enable students to make a difference in the world.”
About the Fulbright Program
The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange program. Top-producing institutions are highlighted annually in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Since 1946, the Fulbright Program has provided more than 380,000 participants, chosen for their academic merit and leadership potential, with opportunities to exchange ideas and contribute to solutions to shared international concerns. More than 1,900 U.S. students, artists and young professionals in more than 100 fields of study are offered Fulbright Program grants to study, teach English and conduct research abroad each year. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program operates in more than 140 countries throughout the world.
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is a program of the U.S. Department of State, funded by an annual appropriation from Congress to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and supported in its implementation by the Institute of International Education.
The Fulbright Program also awards grants to U.S. scholars, teachers and faculty to conduct research and teach overseas. In addition, about 4,000 foreign Fulbright students and scholars come to the United States annually to study, lecture, conduct research and teach foreign languages.
An additional group of students, whose interests could be connected with environmental opportunities, worked with the Center for Environmental Stewardship and Director Sara Stockwood.
“I think it’s been a valuable experience for everyone, even if they didn’t go on study abroad,” Stockwood said of the students who worked for organizations such as the Kalamazoo Watershed Council, the Michigan Lakes and Streams Association and Sarett Nature Center.
“The students I’ve talked to said they’ve wanted to get an internship before, they just weren’t sure how to make it fit in their academic plan,” she said. “But when this class came up it fit well and it matched their class schedule. It was a challenge for them to figure out how to work virtually, and some of them felt a little lost at first, yet they gained the skills they needed to figure it out. I think that will help them in their classes and future jobs, especially if they have virtual components.”
Amanda Dow, a biology major, worked with Melissa DeSimone, the executive director of the Michigan Lakes and Streams Association (MLSA), which is a statewide nonprofit that unites individuals; lake, stream and watershed associations; organizations; and corporations that share an interest the preserving inland lakes and streams for generations to come. Her work experience included writing newsletter articles highlighting the organization’s virtual convention this year, contributing to its printed articles, and reformatting and updating several brochures.
“I have a background in writing so this was a good chance for me to practice in different mediums,” Dow said. “I wrote a review of the convention sessions along with a biography of myself for the newsletter. They also come out with a newspaper and the biggest chunk of my internship went to updating and reformatting their brochures. It helped a lot that when I first got there I could choose what I wanted to do.”
Andrew Wright, a German and biology major, said he felt a little directionless with where he wanted to apply his majors professionally after graduation, until he interned with the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. The organization aims to protect, preserve and promote the Kalamazoo River and its tributaries for current area residents and future generations.
“Through developing a new interactive digital dashboard with the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council members, my work will help users see the different types of chemical contaminants in the Kalamazoo area and how they affect the types of fish here,” Wright said. “Following the motto of the Watershed, we want to make that information as accessible as possible so people can learn how their communities’ ecosystems have been impacted. The Kalamazoo River has unfortunately suffered its fair share of PCB runoff from paper mills and oil spills, and we want to create ways for people to be knowledgeable and be mindful of how we affect our surrounding environments.”
Natalie Barber, a biology major and psychology minor, joined Wright in working for the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. She researched fresh water mussels, which filter small organic particles such as bacteria and algae out of lakes and streams, naturally purifying them. Part of that environmental research involved interviewing Daelyn Woolnough, a Central Michigan University biology faculty member and freshwater mussels expert, leading to website content and social media posts for the watershed council.
With K’s academic schedule, it was important to Barber that she could undertake the internship as a part of her term and she hopes more students at the College will have the same opportunity.
“It’s important we know the effects of global warming and climate change and how they threaten mussels,” Barber said. “We especially have those threats in Kalamazoo because we had the paper mills that put all the PCBs in the water, plus we had the 2010 oil spill. Just knowing about those bigger issues, and also the lesser-known issues like invasive species, which is a big deal to freshwater mussels. Things the general public might not realize are such a big deal like moving boats from lake to lake without cleaning them, that’s important information we should share so we can protect the organisms within our areas. I felt like I was doing something positive toward my career goals. I think these internships should be offered every term because I thought mine was that useful.”
To conclude the class and their environmental internships, each student provided a final visual presentation with screenshots and pictures from their projects. Stockwood said students each had about three minutes to present what they did, what they learned and why it matters.
“They took it very seriously and it was fun because the students didn’t fully know what everybody else was doing,” she said. “They found a lot of similarities in their experiences over time with being lost in the beginning, independently working and having some ownership by the second half of their projects. I hope something like this will continue. It’s important to recognize that it’s not study abroad, but I think the experience was valuable, and I think the students feel it was valuable, too.”
When study abroad stayed on pause this fall, Kalamazoo College faculty and staff got creative. In a short period of time, they developed positive, educational experiences for many of the juniors who expected to spend time in another country, showing the strength of the College’s relationships with its external partners.
“Our challenge partly was to identify what students could do to engage with our international partners and folks off campus, but the question was what that would look like,” Center for International Programs Executive Director Margaret Wiedenhoeft said. “It took working with our partners to see what would be possible.”
Five of those juniors, in fact, still had a chance to learn about another culture in working at virtual international internships with K partners overseas. Addissyn House, Ella Knight and Julia Bienstock are working with the Universidad de Extremadura in Cáceres, Spain, writing articles on current events from a U.S. perspective; and Reyna Rodriguez and Maricruz Jimenez-Mora are teaching English as a second language to people in San Jose, Costa Rica.
‘The Perfect Internship’
For House, Knight and Bienstock, this meant working virtually on a weekly basis with Gemma Delicado, an associate dean and study abroad director, on producing articles for the December issue of Vice Versa, a publication from the Universidad de Extremadura Humanities College, similar to an academic journal.
“A lot of students come to K because of study abroad,” Bienstock said. “It’s a big part of the K-Plan. It was disappointing not to study abroad. However, getting this internship opportunity was a positive thing because we’re going to have to navigate this pandemic for a while, which made the experience really powerful.”
Wiedenhoeft compared their experience to a virtual version of the integrated cultural research project (ICRP) that students would normally write while reflecting on their study abroad experience. House described it as the perfect internship for her.
“My goal was to immerse myself in Spanish, which was what I intended to do on study abroad, and I think we’ve done that to the best of our abilities,” House said. “We’re learning to read and write Spanish at a different level than what we could in school. It’s especially different because we’re online and collaborating a lot more. We can see where Gemma’s making edits, and she can explain why she makes them. I didn’t know that would come out of this experience.”
The topics the students write about include current events such as the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the U.S. presidential election, and the virtual format helps them understand such events from a Spanish perspective. The takeaway remains a cultural immersion that most interns elsewhere will never receive.
“It was disappointing not to study abroad, but this has been enriching in other ways,” Knight said. “It shows that no matter what happens, there’s hope that another opportunity will come along. I hadn’t written articles like this before for a Spanish audience and I’m learning new ways to talk about and teach culture.”
‘I See Myself in These Students’
For Rodriguez and Jimenez-Mora, an international internship meant teaching English to Costa Rican high school students.
K’s study abroad program has connections to Skills for Life, a Costa Rican government initiative targeting bilingualism among citizens for the sake of higher education and better employment. Within that program, Project Boomerang—a reference to volunteers giving back—helps high school students expand their English skills.
Rodriguez was excited for her chance to volunteer through her internship because she struggled to learn English as a child after moving to the Chicago area from Mexico.
“I came home crying because I couldn’t understand my teacher because she seemed to be speaking English so fast,” she said. “I see myself in these students. I know if they’re passionate enough, they’ll be able to succeed. I love the concept of the program because it means I’m giving back.”
Rodriguez typically teaches virtual classes of one to six students three times a week. The students have studied English for at least four years and can read it and write it well. Some even study additional languages. The program, though, provides the students with a stipend as they build their conversation skills on topics such as ice breakers, feelings, cuisine, culture and traditions.
Her fellow volunteers are from countries such as Korea, Brazil and the Netherlands. They all know at least some Spanish, and she and Jimenez-Mora speak it fluently.
“I think students really appreciate that we can speak Spanish because they’re able to ask questions in Spanish if necessary,” she said. “English can be difficult. The context you use and the conjugation can sometimes trip them up.”
Rodriguez has prior experience with teaching as a third-grade language arts assistant at El Sol Elementary in Kalamazoo through CCE. She doesn’t expect to pursue teaching professionally, although the internship has helped her build other job-related skills and she’s grateful for them.
“When I was a little girl, I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “As I’ve seen it growing up, teaching has been a passion. I don’t think it will be a career path, but this helps me see it will be something I pursue in my own time. Professionally, I’ve been able to communicate better with people just by learning how to say things differently. My time management has improved, and I think my creativity has improved as I’ve made my lesson plans and shifted them from elementary to high school students.”
Setbacks Create Opportunities
Although less than ideal with the pandemic, these opportunities have shown that K can channel its relationships abroad to create further opportunities for these students and others.
“It was our relationships with our international partners that really factored into our ability to develop this programming for students,” Wiedenhoeft said. “We try very seriously to nurture these relationships and these internships are the fruit of that. I think these students have demonstrated an ability to adapt to ambiguity and manage understanding how expectations can change, and can change based on a cultural perspective.”
When Kalamazoo College students began their international immersion experiences this academic year, the Center for International Programs (CIP) didn’t expect a global pandemic to change anyone’s plans. Regardless, a once-in-a-century historical challenge emerged.
“This is my first worldwide phenomenon,” said CIP Executive Director Margaret Wiedenhoeft in discussing COVID-19, an illness that has infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. “Most of what we’ve worked with in the past has been country or region specific. This is the first time we had multiple programs shut down at once.”
As the seriousness of the pandemic took shape, K was lucky. No students were sickened abroad and no immersion itineraries were cut unreasonably short as they were halted. On K’s campus, international students affected by travel bans were provided residence hall rooms, even as the College took steps to empty campus and implement social-distancing guidelines.
Still, students who visited countries such as China, Germany and Spain, and international students who remained in Kalamazoo, have stories to tell. And if you’ve wondered how the pandemic has affected them in their travels, keep reading.
Days of Uncertainty in Beijing
Maya Hernandez ’21 and Daniel Mota-Villegas ’21 were among four K students studying at Capital Normal University in Beijing, China, this winter. Before coronavirus emerged, “Honestly it was amazing,” said Hernandez, an East Asian studies major. “Everything was super affordable. It was fun to go out and explore the capital.”
In late January, their sixth month of a planned nine-month immersion, that began to change as word developed of coronavirus, and its presence in Wuhan.
“I figured it was like the flu,” Hernandez said. “But within the span of a week and a half, concern increased.”
Although Wuhan is more than 700 miles from Beijing, professors in the capital were warning students not to visit enclosed and crowded public spaces, traffic was dying down, and fewer children were playing outside. Masks were commonly seen from the start because of pollution in the city, yet they were becoming more prevalent. Hotels and beaches even began to close, forcing Mota-Villegas and Hernandez to cancel plans to visit another city.
“After that there were check points around the school,” said Mota-Villegas, a political science major studying U.S.-China relations and how they affect Taiwan. “They closed the school’s gates and there were security guards around. We couldn’t leave campus without direct permission.”
Fear emerged without reliable, consistent communication through tools such as the Internet, which is problematic in China, and with a 12-hour time difference from Kalamazoo hindering communication with the College. Should they go home and risk not returning? Should they make logistical preparations such as closing their bank accounts? Should they stay and risk not being able to leave with travel restrictions developing around the world?
Meanwhile, in Kalamazoo, the CIP was monitoring the U.S. Department of State guidelines, which had yet to focus on Bejing. Partner organizations in China—which had not yet cancelled programs in other parts of the country—sent updates, and CIP was gathering additional information from other U.S. institutions that had students in China. The situation was fast-moving and fluid. Finally, Capital Normal cancelled its global programs for the next term on Jan. 31, leading to a phone call to students from the CIP. It was a call telling the K students that CIP was bringing them home.
“Once we heard we were going home, that was the best feeling in the world,” Mota-Villegas said. “We needed that phone call. It made me realize again that K would take care of us. We felt supported again and we celebrated.”
Similar Tales of Two Cities in Europe
Although news was spreading of the coronavirus in Europe, two K students who were there until March said they initially weren’t worried about it, and they were surprised to come home.
In Badajoz, Spain, Nick Stein ’21 was studying at the Extremadura University in January. Several of his K peers were leaving after attending their program for its scheduled six months. Stein, though, was planning to stay an additional term.
“I first heard about coronavirus as everyone else was leaving,” he said. “Life was pretty normal until maybe March 10.”
Stein had been attending classes and teaching English when he made a trip to an art festival in Madrid. It was about that time when people started cancelling trips and there was talk of Extremadura University calling off its term.
Then, the president of Spain said the country would close borders and restrict travel.
“The CIP was good about saying, ‘You can stay or you can come home,’” Stein said. “They were always good about letting me make the decision. But when the president said there would be action, I knew that was my time to leave. In three hours, I had found a flight. I got on a train to Madrid and slept at the airport on my way home.”
Coming back so suddenly was the only thing he would change about his experience.
“It was surreal in a certain sense,” Stein said. “It’s difficult to come back when you’re speaking a different language for a while. It felt like living in a dream for two months. I was teaching English to families and making relationships when I suddenly had to return. It was a surprise.”
A similar story developed in Erlangen, Germany, for Jennalise Ellis ’21.
Ellis is a chemistry and German double major at K. When she attended Friedrich-Alexander University in Germany, she took mostly German-language courses, but blended her majors by taking a didactic chemistry course and working as an assistant in an organic chemistry lab. She was planning on staying three more months when President Trump planned a travel ban from Europe into the U.S., and countries neighboring Germany began closing their borders.
“I was shocked when I found out that I was actually going to have to move back to the U.S., because I was hopeful that the severity of the pandemic would subside by the start of the summer semester in mid-April,” she said. “I was also sad that I had to say goodbye to people and the city I got to know so well. The hardest part was that I didn’t have time to mentally prepare to leave Erlangen.”
It was an experience that has left her longing to go back some day.
“I definitely want to return,” Ellis said. “I am considering going to graduate school in Germany.”
An International Student Stays
When K students received the notification about distance learning this term, Xiu Cai ’20, an international student from China, was concerned. In addition to feeling frustrated with missing the spring events of her senior year, she worried that the travel restrictions, combined with the residence halls closing, would leave her homeless. Fortunately, the CIP was there to help.
“We received some emails that said people from China and certain places in Europe would not have to leave because of the travel bans,” Cai said. “When I talked with CIP, they emphasized those emails guaranteed me a place. They were supportive and helpful. I’ve appreciated everything they do.”
Since, Cai has attended distance learning courses from her residence hall, eaten meals at the Hicks Student Center, appreciated Mail Center services and exercised by walking through campus. She also is grateful for her professors who gave support, Dining Services who provided her with meals, and the Student Health Center, which provided masks when she need them.
“I feel like being here now is a special experience, for me at least,” she said. “Not everyone would have a chance to experience the same thing in their lives. I’m grateful to the school for allowing me to stay here.”
Still at hand, however, is the issue of getting home after graduation. Cai has tried five times to schedule flights home for June after the Conferral of Degrees ceremony, and all five flights have been cancelled. As of now, she’s uncertain when she will go home and see her family.
“I video chat with family almost every day,” Cai said. When coronavirus emerged, “I was spending all my time worrying about my family. Now, they’re worried about me.”
Regardless, Cai said this experience, if anything, is only encouraging her to travel more.
“The coronavirus, to me, is random,” she said. “You never know what will happen in the next second in life. If you have the chance, go wherever you want.”
Moving forward, students who want to study abroad may need to consider what the “new normal” may be as the pandemic runs its course.
“I would think about what my expectations for travel might be and how we meet our new reality,” Wiedenhoeft said. “I know many of our students who go to Europe, for example, love to travel. What would it mean if you’re in Spain and can’t go to France? That means you can still get to know different regions of Spain very well. You can go to art museums. You can find something that is interesting to you, and be flexible enough to achieve it.”
Wiedenhoeft also is encouraging optimism that student immersion opportunities will stay an important part of the K-Plan.
“There are certain regions of the world that will recover first,” she said. “We need to do what we can to maximize opportunities in those regions. The relationships we have with our partners will be very important in those plans. I think our relationships will be stronger because we’ve been in frequent contact.”
In addition, “We want to encourage folks not to be disheartened,” she said. “We genuinely believe we will engage with the world again and that they will engage with us. It will take time, but it will not be like this forever.”