The Lifelong Impact of a Semester Abroad
The opportunity to participate in Global Semester was the reason Meg Hawley ’82 chose to attend St. Olaf College.
The experience she had traveling the world for five months with fellow Oles was so powerful that it set the course for the rest of her life, leading to a distinguished career as a U.S. diplomat. She has spent more than 30 years living and working abroad, serving the State Department in eight different countries. She negotiated U.S. positions on trade and agriculture policy with the European Union, managed U.S. assistance to the World Food Program in Mali, oversaw U.S. energy policy across Africa, and organized visits by President Obama and then–Vice President Biden to South Korea.
“Working as a diplomat has its challenges, including frequent moves and potential evacuations, but offers a rich life experience while serving one’s country,” she says.
And it all started by studying abroad at St. Olaf.
“St. Olaf’s Global Semester offers an unparalleled study and adventure experience that has the potential to whet one’s appetite for more of the same, as it did for me,” says Hawley, who currently lives in Stuttgart, Germany. “I’m grateful to St. Olaf for this global study adventure and for the long-lasting friendships that ensued.”
St. Olaf’s Global Semester offers an unparalleled study and adventure experience that has the potential to whet one’s appetite for more of the same, as it did for me. I’m grateful to St. Olaf for this global study adventure and for the long-lasting friendships that ensued.Meg Hawley ’82
The strength of those friendships was on full display this summer, when the Global Semester participants Hawley traveled with more than four decades ago gathered for a reunion. The gathering — organized by David Buck ’82, Kristine Dale Kawamura ’82, Ellen Mueller Heisel ’81, David Midthun ’80, and Jeanne Hulstrand Berget ’82 — offered an opportunity for these Oles to reflect on the impact that studying abroad has had on their careers, their relationships, and the ways they’ve chosen to serve others.
“My five-month study abroad experience was perhaps the most profound and impactful experience of my life,” Buck says, noting that studying abroad can open the eyes of a 20-year old student in ways a textbook can’t. He says he learned to see and appreciate differences through studying abroad, but the experience also helped him understand that people around the world are more alike than they are different. “People everywhere generally strive to prosper, love their family, and are willing to help others … all just as we do.”
Midthun agrees, noting that he thinks the worldview many Americans have would benefit substantially from time spent studying abroad. “Global changed the lens through which I look at the world, and has certainly added seasoning to many interpersonal interactions,” he says.
After graduating from St. Olaf, Midthun attended medical school and became a pulmonologist at Mayo Clinic. The experiences he had on Global led him to participate in mission trips to Honduras, Bolivia, and Kenya, as well as work-related trips to Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Europe.
“The life I have been fortunate enough to lead caught flight on Global,” Midthun says.
The lasting impact of studying abroad can often be difficult for current students — or even more recent alumni — to fully see just yet. But 40 years on, Buck says, it’s crystal clear. As members of his Global Group, along with program leaders Bill and Char Carlson, reminisced over photos, scrapbooks, and even a video documenting their travels, they reflected on the innumerable ways the experience had shaped their lives. It’s something Buck has continued to think about in the months since the reunion.
“Study abroad was a kind of summons — it invoked in me a kind of spiritual or grateful response to be compassionate and give back,” he says. “Ultimately, it helped me appreciate what Howard Thurman said: ‘Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.'”