Through Wisconsin International Scholars, students pursue global passion

While still in high school, Brett Schilke wanted to know more about Russia and its people than the Cold War material covered in his classes.

Schilke worked with an Appleton, Wis., organization that partnered with Kurgan, a city in Russia. And, in 2004, he and four other high school students traveled halfway around the world to launch a youth development program that linked Russia and the United States.

Brett Schilke
Brett Schilke

“After traveling to Russia, there was no turning back for me,” he says. “I loved it, and was so inspired to keep working internationally, helping to connect our world.”

As he prepared to enter the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Schilke discovered a unique enrichment program that would allow him to continue pursuing his international interests and to connect with peers who share a passion for global affairs – the Wisconsin International Scholars (WISc) program.

The idea for WISc emerged after Joan Raducha, associate dean emerita of International Studies, recognized that many students did not always have sufficient opportunities to develop their passion for international affairs to the fullest.  Raducha worked with a faculty committee to create a program that would allow students to “hold on to that dream,” says Jolanda Vanderwal Taylor, WISc faculty chair.

The first class of WISc Scholars entered in the fall of 2003.

Some members of this special group – up to 15 incoming freshmen are admitted each year – see the four-year WISc program as an added bonus to being a Badger.

For others, getting accepted into this program “provided a tipping point” in deciding whether to attend UW–Madison at all, according to Taylor, professor and chair of the Department of German.

“The students come to campus already intending to make sure that their undergraduate education has a solid component of developing knowledge about the world and engagement with the world,” she says, “and they anticipate that this program will keep part of their focus there.”

Over the years, WISc Scholars have represented a broad range of majors, including engineering, computer science, political science, economics, a variety of world languages, music performance, sociology, anthropology, classics, biology, chemistry, linguistics, environmental studies, geography, international business, and international studies. These include students in pre-med and pre-law programs.

Ann Elise Trafford
Ann Elise Trafford

Ann Elise Trafford, a WISc Scholar and a freshman planning to major in international studies and education or psychology, says, “I heard about [WISc] last year when I was doing a gap year in Ghana and it seemed like it would be a good way to enhance my international studies major, and mainly just to meet other students and professors who are interested in learning about current events and issues around the world.”

Vera Swanson, another WISc Scholar and a sophomore majoring in biology and environmental studies, applied to the program because she wanted to internationalize her undergraduate years and obtain a “sense of more global competency.”

Vera Swanson
Vera Swanson

“Lots of the activities we do in WISc help foster that,” Swanson says.

The WISc Scholars program includes a required one-credit freshman seminar, as well as Introduction to Global Cultures (ILS 209), a course that cultivates “a solid intellectual basis that all of the students will have in common,” Taylor says.

WISc Scholars also are expected to complete at least four semesters worth of coursework in world languages.

“Even if I weren’t in this program I’d be [studying a language] anyways,” Swanson says, “but I think that’s one of the most important things that I get out of [WISc].”

WISc alumna Mai Lee Chang says the language requirement and other WISc activities have had an impact on her career as an engineer for NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She is currently exploring human-robot interaction and serves as the deputy system manager for the International Space Station Flight Crew Integration.

Mai Lee Chang
Mai Lee Chang

“Knowing French [which she studied while in WISc] helped me learn Russian more easily,” says Chang, who uses Russian to communicate with the flight crew.

In addition to the course requirements, WISc Scholars are expected to participate in co-curricular events, such as dinners with the International Learning Community (ILC) and foreign film screenings during the Wisconsin Film Festival, followed by small-group discussions. They also are encouraged to attend non-WISc events that interest them, such as guest lectures on campus.

“The specific lectures and events that they’re interested in will vary from student to student based on their area of interests,” Taylor says. “I’m very proud of the students and all the many different languages and different areas of study that they engage in.”

Two study abroad scholarships, one for a short-term program and one for a semester or year-long program, are available to WISc Scholars.

“I definitely want to study abroad,” Trafford says. “I’m taking Arabic right now so I would love to study in Morocco or another country in the Middle East.”

Swanson’s dream destination for study abroad is Ecuador.

“It’s 16 environmental studies classes, and you go with two biologists here from Madison and do field research in the Amazon, the Galapagos Islands, the Andes Mountains. So that’s where my mind’s at right now,” she says. “I’m also looking at shorter winter term programs too, if I could.”

Once a year, all WISc Scholars participate in a retreat, where they discuss a book all have read and those who’ve recently studied abroad talk about their experiences.

Taylor believes that WISc program currently has a healthy variety of activities that benefits students, both individually and as a community. “It’s a matter of carefully balancing unity and diversity,” she says.

Through WISc, students also find life-long friendships.

“When the program started, there was a lot more explicit programming,” Taylor explains. “We’ve backed off that just a little bit because we realized that the students, in their relationships with each other, provide mentoring and peer support for the kinds of things that they want to do.”

What Swanson loves most about the program are “the people that are in it.”

“I wouldn’t have crossed paths with a lot of them, probably, and being able to hear from them, about their experiences and what they do over the summers and how they occupy themselves has been great,” she says. “Our advisors, Jolanda and Melody [Niwot], are endless sources of knowledge and support and advice.”

Fall 2013 inauguration of incoming WISc Scholars.
Fall 2013 inauguration of incoming WISc Scholars.

Niwot oversees the day-to-day operation of the program, advising and supporting the students. Others who have played key roles include Tomislav Longinovic, professor of Slavic and comparative literature; Liane Kosaki, assistant dean in the College of Letters and Science; and Marianne Bird Bear, assistant dean in the Division of International Studies.

WISc Scholars alumna Lana Landgraf says that the program presented her with opportunities that, along with the friendships she formed, have “challenged me to broaden my horizons and look at things differently.”

“Each of our passions was unique,” says Landgraf, who currently works as a senior financial analyst at Nelson Global Products. “Some of us knew everything there is to know about Western Europe, while others specialized in Asia or South America. Over the four years, we grew up together and that creates a pretty neat bond.”

After leaving UW–Madison, WISc Scholars alumni often find that their experiences give them a significant advantage in their professional lives.

Sara Jerving
Sara Jerving

Because so many international elements were incorporated into her UW experience, Sara Jerving says she “felt comfortable taking positions in foreign countries,” such as Senegal, Tanzania and Kenya, and “is confident that there will always be an international component to my career.”

“WISc Scholar events are among my favorite memories from UW-Madison,” adds Jerving, who recently worked for Bloomberg in Tanzania. Currently, she is a Lorana Sullivan Fellow at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, working toward her master’s degree with a focus on business.

After graduating from UW–Madison, Schilke found that his WISc experience had strengthened the foundation for his career to flourish internationally, just as he had hoped: “I’ve lived in Russia and Romania, traveled extensively and now direct an education and development nonprofit that works all around the world.”

He adds, “Maybe that all would have happened without WISc, but the effect the program had in strengthening my commitment to connect with other countries and cultures was great.”

“I can think of few things better than being part of a small community of aspiring polyglots, hopeless travelers and global citizens.”

– by Haley Henschel

Photos: Meet the WISc Scholars inaugurated in the Fall 2013