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Student uses study abroad experience to help others

May 2, 2008

Whatever it is that students want out of their college experience, they have the ability to get it somehow, someway and somewhere.

UW-River Falls student Christine Selby strove for a challenge: to find a travel abroad experience that was affordable, to become fluent in a foreign language and to serve others while at the same time serving herself academically.

Selby spent her fall 2007 semester abroad in Bolivia. She is the only UWRF student to utilize the new relationship between UWRF and Universidad Academica Campesina-Carmen Pampa (UAC-CP) in rural Bolivia.

Independently, Selby created her trip with independent study and an internship to meet academic requirements for her Speech Communications major. She also organized her living situation in which she lived in a dormitory at UAC-CP. Unlike other independent travel abroad programs offered at UWRF, Selby had the opportunity to teach English, work in a library and referee basketball for boys and girls teams. She was also able to play on an intramural team at the Bolivian university.

“I taught five English classes at the local high school. My students ranged from 13 to 20 years old. I showed up and the guy who had been teaching did not speak any English, so they were like, ‘Hey, want to teach high school English?’ So I started two days later,” Selby said.

With little teaching experience and few supplies, Selby made the most out of her new responsibility. “I created my own entire curriculum and brought my own chalk to class. There were no books or resources, so it was a great opportunity for me to be creative and become engaged in the learning process,” Selby said.

In addition to teaching her five high school classes, she also tutored English to college students at UAC-CP.

A relationship is established

Pat Hanson, a lecturer for communication studies and theater arts, has been the coordinator of what she calls “Project Bolivia.”

“A shirt-tail relative of mine co-founded the university in Bolivia… I told him then that I was now teaching at UWRF, which is renowned for some of the very majors offered at the university [in Bolivia] and that they should partner with us,” Hanson said in an e-mail interview. “He agreed and said that the next time his co-founder, Sister Damon Nolan, was in town he would bring her to campus.”

Damon did come to UWRF and she noted the areas of the greatest need for the students at UAC-CP: teaching of English as a second language, teacher training, teaching of artificial insemination (of the agriculture program) and eco-tourism.

“I knew their need was great and our ability to give equally great,” Hanson said. “This is [also] a great opportunity for our students to engage in service learning, learn or improve their Spanish and see one of the most beautiful parts of the world.”

Selby first heard of Project Bolivia in a Spanish class as a vague announcement about a ceremony.

“A couple of days later I was in the University Center and I see the Bolivian flag and a group of people gathered around. I figured it must be what she had been talking about,” Selby said. “I went over and watched them sign the consortium agreement and we gave them a goat and they gave us a charango.”

The charango, a small South American string instrument, is now on display in front of Chancellor Don Betz’s office.

An experience

To pay for this trip abroad and her time in Bolivia, Selby received a $1,000 grant from the College of Arts and Sciences. She also had regular scholarships that applied to her tuition.

“The rest of my expenses came out of my pocket. But stuff is cheap at 70 cents for a meal. So it was a great deal over all,” Selby said.

With monetary issues and academia aside, the rest of her time was spent building relationships and learning about the culture and people.

“I have awesome friendships that I am so glad for and they challenge me in ways that my friends in the states just can’t do,” she said. “One specific highlight was getting to dance in a huge anniversary festival of the City of Coroico for a dance competition.”

Selby had the chance to see poverty first-hand in South America. UAC-CP is the only school in the Yunga area of the Andes Mountains serving the Aymara and Quechua indigenous groups.

“The biggest frustration though was just realizing the opportunity gap between me and my new friends. It makes you think a lot when you realize your plane ticket could cover one student’s tuition, food, and housing for about two years,” Selby said. “The fact that these students are getting a college education is incredible.”

Selby has mentioned that “we are so privileged here and the need is so great there.” Education has a direct link to the lives of UAC-CP students.

“Education is the Bolivian students’ ticket out of poverty. They are so grateful for everything they receive,” Hanson said.

The relationship between UWRF and UAC-CP is not a set program, and there was no formal exchange.

“That is kind of the beauty of it because it will only attract students with initiative who are looking for a unique experience like this. You won’t find it on a list of travel abroad programs,” Selby said. “With that said, students should only do this if they are very serious about learning a lot and being challenged. If that’s what you want and you’re willing to be humbled and put in the sweat, you should definitely do it.”

Brent Greene, Global Connections director, urges students to study abroad, especially to non-traditional regions instead of western Europe.

“It’s an absolute pinnacle, a study abroad experience… [Students] take it to the next level. It’s a lifelong thirst, lust for the Earth and travel. It is hard to explain what it does to your soul,” Greene said.

The future of Project Bolivia

Selby recently submitted the Faculty Foundation Grant, which she created over her spring break. If it is accepted, then a Bolivian student will be coming to UWRF to study.

“This is the big part of the exchange. We are looking for student organizations and individuals who want to commit to being proactive about supporting UAC-CP and their students,” Selby said.

Part of the program plan is to have the active support of at least 10 student organizations by next year. As of now there is only one student organization.

“If we do not get this grant we are not giving up. We will fundraise, write more grants — whatever we need to do to get this student here,” Selby said. “For anybody who wants to be involved, there is great opportunity to learn about Bolivia and poverty.”

Any kind of exchange, whether it is a student or a faculty member, will “enhance collaboration, deepen relations and create a human link,” Greene said.

All 625 students that study at UAC-CP will return to their villages to educate, farm, nurse and lead eco-tours.

“They will be giving back for the rest of their lives,” Hanson said.

When the teaching spreads from UWRF throughout Bolivia the knowledge expands within the citizens. “She could have changed an entire country by her experience,” Greene said.