Traveling Far. Thinking BIG

It has been said that all the world is a book, and that those who do not travel read only a page.

Though nestled comfortably in the heartland of Iowa, Mount Mercy University students are discovering greater opportunities to travel outside the Midwest.  Students are taking advantage of the experiences to read more of that “book” each year, especially as the institution continues to build courses and programs with an international flare. This past winter, two courses offered during January Term (J-Term) took their classrooms across the pond for two weeks, placing students in new surroundings of culture, education and community.

Both classes, “European Union: Culture, Politics and Economics” and “Social Welfare: Worldview,” traveled to Europe and provided students with the opportunity to delve into the politics, economics, social welfare system and art of the historic areas of London, Canterbury, Paris and Brussels. The well-organized planning and carefully structured itineraries enabled the two separate groups to amass an abundant amount of newexperiences — both academically and personally — and helped cement the University’s goal of fostering a richer international culture on campus.

Students in the Social Welfare: Worldview class take in the sights of Stonehedge

With concentrated efforts from the faculty and staff who accompanied the students, the trips yielded experiences that surpassed the expectations of the students. “Several students mentioned a few days into the trip that if they went home today, the trip would have already exceeded their expectation — and we still had two countries to go,” says Assistant Professor of Business Tracy Tunwall who, alongside Assistant Professor of Business Janice Reily, accompanied 15 students in the European Union course.

Agenda items featured in the business-focused course were not found in most syllabi — including trips to Parliament and the American Embassy Trade Office. The class was able to learn first-hand about the seven different political groups that exist in the European Parliament, as well as the structure of Parliament and its role in relation to the Commission and Council.

“Learning about the impact of the current recession on the countries in the European Union was very interesting, especially learning the causes for the recession in Europe,” says senior Randalle Seeley, a business major from Anamosa, Iowa. “It was neat listening about firsthand experiences with running a multinational business, and how exchange rates can affect that business.”

The Social Welfare class had equal opportunity to explore material that related to the courses the students were studying. Nine social work students received a true-to-life perspective on social welfare in Europe by sitting in on lectures from social work professors at Canterbury Christ Church University and visiting several social welfare agencies in Europe — opening fresh viewpoints and perspectives on social welfare.

“I wanted to come to England because I am very interested in international social work as a career,” says junior Ashley Livermore, a social work major from Cedar Rapids. “I wanted to learn about the policies and the way services are provided in another country.”

Enjoying some sights in England!

The strong academic stakes that held the trips down solidified them as vessels of education, rather than just a two-week European vacation. “The courses were more of an academic course taught abroad, rather than an international trip with a few educational aspects thrown in,” says Director of International Programs Catharine Cashner, who accompanied Associate Professor of Social Work Joni Howland on the Social Welfare trip.

With assistance from Cashner and support from the Office of Academic Affairs, the two classes assembled their course work and itinerary early on. Having a point-person who specialized in Study Abroad affairs benefited the professors as they mobilized their resources. “The process is so much smoother with an International Program here on campus,” says Tunwall. Howland agrees. “That resource really helped us [as faculty] focus on the academic side of things during the trip, while Catharine was able to organize all the international connections and other details.”

The result was two trips that unleashed new ideas among students and sparked out-of-the-box thinking across multiple threads, both personally and academically. “This trip changed my perspective on several things in life,” says senior Molly Skripsky, a nursing major from Oxford, Iowa who was part of the European Union class. “I learned a lot about my pertinence and tolerance of others. I think that this experience showed me what it is like for immigrants and visitors in the United States.”

Molly Skripksy, a nursing major from Oxford, Iowa, enjoys a classic London phone booth

Both classes wove chances for personal growth and academic achievement into the program, giving students two weeks of unbridled opportunity as they explored topics related to their field of interest as well as experience new adventures, like seeing Notre Dame Cathedral.

“There is a change of philosophy over there,” says Howland of the social work culture in Europe, and her students’ first-hand experience of it. “You can’t provide that in a classroom or field placement.” Tunwall agrees that living for two weeks in another culture provides an experience you can’t deliver behind a desk. “There are activities that could simulate it…but we lived it,” she says.

Living in a different culture enabled the students to solidify the learning experience, a benefit that the professors do not take for granted. “I think this experience helped make [the students] more intellectually flexible and creative — and that’s what makes a good social worker,” says Howland. “I am very ready to graduate in the spring and begin working, and I feel so lucky to have been here in England, further developing my concept of social work on a global level,” says senior Kristin Moore, a social work major from Cedar Rapids.

As more and more students take the leap overseas, Mount Mercy furthers its opportunities abroad with additional international courses on the books for next year, including trips to Canterbury with Associate Professor of Education Ellen O’Keefe and a British Literature course with Professor of English Mary Vermillion and Assistant Professor of English Christopher DeVault.

“We hope these courses help change the Mount Mercy culture and push international activity a little more,” says Howland. “These students will now be able to give a multi-cultural perspective in class, and affect the culture here.”

“There’s a ripple effect if you know someone who has been abroad,” agrees Cashner, who also hopes to see interest continue to soar in the programs. She notes the overall change on campus when it comes to international connections, noting the breadth of activity that has a multicultural theme. “There’s also been an increase in the number of international students coming here, adding their perspectives and activities to campus,” she says. “Often, your first international experience is exposure to someone from another country. It makes it less scary [to travel there].”


Upon the establishment of an International Programs office in the summer of 2008, the culture at Mount Mercy has continued to enjoy a steady shift in international thinking. Coupled with several robust connections at strong overseas institutions like Palacky University in the Czech Republic and Canterbury Christ Church University in England, Mount Mercy continues to climb in global aspirations.

With a president at the helm who himself hails from England, it was easy to forge relationships with representatives at both institutions when President Blake visited in the fall of 2008 and helped strengthen collaboration, such as the exchange program with Palacky University.

With solid partnerships with several international institutions, and with more and more faculty not only taking classes overseas but traveling abroad themselves as Fulbrights and guest lecturers, Mount Mercy continues to make strides in its global endeavors, changing some perspectives — one student at a time.

“This experience has allowed me the opportunity to learn that the world is bigger than just Iowa!” says junior Chelsea Benters, a nursing major from Lena, Ill.