Serendipitous encounters lay groundwork for student exchanges

When she stepped off the airplane in London, Professor of English Mary Vermillion, Ph.D. had a gut feeling that her return trip to Britain would be a fruitful one.

“I felt like I belonged the whole time,” says Vermillion of her second visit. She experienced numerous “serendipitous encounters” that proved her voyage was fated, including an interaction on the Cliffs of Dover with a professional photographer who took time to tutor her on some finer points of photography and a merciful experience with Londoners who helped her with her luggage on the Underground.

Vermillion made the trek to England to increase her knowledge of British literature and positively impact her teaching. An added benefit of the semester-long trip, which came during her sabbatical in the 2009–10 academic year, was that Vermillion would work to solidify relationships between Mount Mercy and Canterbury Christ Church University, formalized in a Memo of Understanding in 2008, laying the groundwork for additional Mount Mercy students to study abroad at CCCU in 2010–11.

At CCCU, Vermillion taught two first-year courses, Critical Approaches to Literature and Theory of the Novel, and offered lectures. “Because CCCU’s literature courses are different from Mount Mercy’s in both content and style, I strengthened my lecture skills and my knowledge of recent literary theory, and I gained confidence and flexibility as a teacher,” she says.

Vermillion is now an emissary for study abroad opportunities for students and faculty. She recognizes and promotes the idea of study abroad to all students — regardless of their major. “As an undergraduate, I spent a summer studying in Tokyo, and a few years back I took Mount Mercy students to Guadalajara,” she says. “I wanted to develop a greater familiarity with England so that I could take students there, too.”

Vermillion’s sense of adventure is paying off — in the form of Mount Mercy students who are planning to study in England through the Mount Mercy — CCCU program exchange in Spring 2011. English/secondary education majors Allie Brown from Cedar Rapids and Emilie Warren from Mount Auburn, Iowa, and criminal justice major Jenna Miller from Marion, Iowa, will be the beneficiaries of the new international partnership.

“I’m very interested in learning about different cultures, and having been to England once before, I can’t wait to go back,” says Miller. “When I saw the poster for the study abroad to England, I knew I couldn’t miss out! It’s such a great chance to not only learn more about another country, but to teach others about ours as well. The part I’m most looking forward to is studying criminal justice from a different cultural point of view. I’m interested to see how different it is … or how similar.”

In 2009–10 Mount Mercy also welcomed Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence Libor Prager, Ph.D., from Mount Mercy’s partner institution, Palacky University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. Prager studied at Mount Mercy 20 years ago as the first student to take part in the exchange between Palacky University and Mount Mercy. As an undergraduate, Prager was both witness and participant in the Velvet Revolution, a non-violent uprising in Czechoslovakia that oversaw the fall of the Communist Party. In 2009–10 Prager taught English and film studies courses and served as the institution’s first Presidential Lecturer in an address entitled  “Education and Change: Friend or Foe?”

Fulbright Scholarships are highly prestigious due to the competitive application process, but Mount Mercy is privileged again to have a faculty member recognized with such a distinctive honor. Kathryn Hagy, M.F.A., associate professor of art and chair of the Department of Communications, Literature and the Arts is the recipient of a 2010 Fulbright Scholar Award for teaching and research in Kathmandu, Nepal where she will teach art, continue to develop her artwork related to water images, and investigate how Nepal’s arts flourish under political and social pressure. She also hopes to establish connections for further exchange opportunities and exhibits between artists, students and professors. Hagy is also blogging about her experiences.

Faculty who study abroad and promote the idea also encourage Mount Mercy students to consider traveling abroad, says Catharine Cashner, director of international programs. “Since faculty have so much day-to-day contact with students, their overseas experiences really inspire students to consider studying abroad. Faculty return from these experiences enthusiastic and with vivid examples of the encounters and events that make intercultural experiences so powerful.”

Criminal justice student Miller and her travel-mates will soon discover just how powerful those experiences can be.