Leading and learning abroad: A Q&A with Alumni and Family Travel leaders
St. Olaf College has been helping alumni, parents, and friends of the college reach their travel goals for more than 40 years.
In addition to offering study abroad and study away programs in more than 40 countries around the world for current students, St. Olaf also offers about a dozen programs per year to alumni, families, and friends.
These Alumni and Family Travel programs — led by current and retired faculty and hosted by campus leaders — enable Oles to explore and learn in new corners of the world.
Two of the leaders of these programs are Dave ’80 and Pat Lunderberg Van Wylen ’80.
In addition to being St. Olaf alumni, they are the parents of three Oles: Nathan Van Wylen ’10, Thomas Van Wylen ’11, and Madison Van Wylen ’16. Dave taught biology at St. Olaf for more than 20 years and Pat worked with visiting scholars at the college. They led St. Olaf students on study-abroad programs for years, which has prepared them for their current roles in leading adult study travel programs for the college.
Alumni and Family Travel Director Heidi Quiram P’21 recently asked the Van Wylens to share their thoughts on leading both students and lifelong learners for St. Olaf.
What are your lives filled with these days?
As we have learned and traveled in different places, we’ve observed that attitude is key and life changes can be positive. There always seem to be good people to be found and new things to learn. In 2015, after living many years in Northfield, Minnesota, we moved to Holland, Michigan. All of our parents were living in Holland at the time, and that was a major draw for the move.
Dave served as Hope College’s Dean for Natural and Applied Sciences for five years and then became the Principal for Hope’s new Office of Possibilities, a college-wide innovation office. Pat was Hope College’s Global Study Travel Coordinator, and she now runs her own business assisting seniors. We currently live in a remarkable and unusual apartment above a local downtown shoe store. We have simplified our lives and like to walk or bike to destinations.
Our carbon footprint is larger than we would prefer because we enjoy traveling. We regularly see our children and grandchildren in Minnesota and Rhode Island, and there is no doubt that one of our current highlights is leading St. Olaf adult study travel programs.
What do you enjoy most about leading study travel?
We enjoy learning and widening our understanding of the world, and hopefully are a conduit to facilitate this with our fellow travelers. It is hard to differentiate between the people and the places when it comes to the best aspects of being program leaders; they are inseparable, and we are incredibly grateful for both. We have traveled with and met so many thoughtful, fun, curious, stimulating, wise, and just fundamentally good people. Together we have experienced and learned about so many wonderful places, plus have enjoyed connecting with interesting locals in every country. Such great memories!
What would you like to share with readers about the differences between interacting with 18-22 year olds and interacting with lifelong learners?
In general, the adage is true: older adult learners like to go to bed at night and students think sleep is overrated. Therefore, not surprisingly, older adults are in better spirits for early-morning starts and stay awake on the bus when guides give their mini-talks. Both older adults and college-age adults have unabashed enthusiasm for new sights. While college-aged students have that relentless energy to explore and try new activities during free time, older adult learners remain more balanced in how they use their energy. But there are certainly exceptions to this rule. Regardless of age, all share great wonder and appreciation when experiencing the natural beauty, fascinating culture, and beautiful people of a newly explored country.
Do you have any favorite stories from either/both with students and with adult learners?
Of course — the question is where to start.
On our 1998 Term in Asia Program, our group spent a few days in a Northern Thailand Karen village. Our family, which included our three kids — ages 11, 9, and 5 at the time — were assigned to a room together in a dormitory where we slept on sleeping bags on the hardwood floor. As we were getting ready for bedtime, we noticed some very large spiders on the walls and ceiling (they keep getting bigger each time we tell the story). Calming our kids by telling them that the spiders would stay put, we turned off the lights and climbed into our sleeping bags. But the spiders did not stay in place. These spiders were so big that we soon could hear them walking around, their “feet” clacking on the hardwood floor, much like the sound of fingernails tapping on a table. OK, now we are freaked out, no longer even close to being able to sleep. Pat, always the rational thinker, said that our hosts would not have put us in a room where guests routinely die of spider bites. This was only mildly reassuring. Finally, with kids having joined us in our sleeping bags, we pulled the sleeping bags over our head and eventually fell asleep. When we awoke in the morning, there were no spiders to be seen and, other than a restless night, we were all just fine.
Here are a few other highlights:
- A group of six adults celebrated a participant’s 60th birthday by bungee jumping off the AJ Hackett Kawarau Bridge in New Zealand.
- A student laundered his passport, rendering useless the stamped visas for the rest of the program.
- A tenuous nighttime hike up Mt. Sinai delivered the incredibly inspiring sunrise from the top of the mountain.
- Learning the significant difference between electric and self-powered bikes when cycling into a strong North Sea wind in the Netherlands.
- Successfully crossing the crazy streets of Cairo as we ventured away from the Cosmopolitan Hotel that housed so many St. Olaf students over the years.
- Snorkeling with sharks and fish at Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
- Sensory systems on high alert in Patagonia as we saw the visual beauty of Mt. Fitz Roy, listened to the creaking and calving sounds of the Perito Moreno Glacier, and tasted/smelled incredible food and local wines.
What have you learned from your previous roles, current roles, and being study travel leaders?
Practically speaking, we appreciate St. Olaf’s well-structured programs. Yet some of our best experiences came from being responsive to the unplanned moment or creating opportunities amidst a day where nothing seemed to work out.
This summer, there was a 1980 Global Semester reunion of Pat’s fellow St. Olaf students and field supervisors, Bill and Char Carlson. In addition to being a wonderful reunion, it brought home all the ways travel and learning abroad changed how we saw life and how it impacted our lives and decisions in the future.
We work to enter into new experiences with an open mind, to soak in the unfolding happenings, to defer judgment, and to process those experiences later in a safe and sensitive setting. Sometimes, the quieter you become and the more observant you are, the more you learn.
Remarkable hospitality and generosity exists around the world, for which we are so grateful. We appreciate every opportunity to share that hospitality in return when we have visitors to our country.
You can join Dave and Pat in Spain from September 8-23, 2023 or in Vietnam in February 2024. More details on these travel opportunities and others are on the Alumni and Family Travel website.