In the spring of 1968, the St. Olaf College campus was buzzing about a new around-the-world study abroad program that had just received faculty approval and was set to launch in the fall. First-year students Doug Koons ’71 and Jane Baker Koons ’71, who were dating at the time, talked excitedly about it with their group of friends in the dining hall. No doubt, similar conversations were taking place elsewhere as students began to dream about the possibility of being among the inaugural group of travelers on this groundbreaking program called Global Semester.
“It was so out of proportion for our imaginations, but for those of us who were curious about the world, it seemed like an experience of a lifetime,” Doug says.
At the time, he and Jane had little idea the impact Global Semester would have on them.
“It changed the course of our lives,” Jane says.
As first-year students, the couple wasn’t initially eligible to apply, but because St. Olaf didn’t quite have enough participants to fully fund Global (the cost was an additional $1,100 per student in 1968), the college offered five seats to rising sophomores with parental approval, Doug says. “Our parents had to write a letter of support stating they understood the risks involved and considered their children mature enough for the program.”
Their parents did so, and Doug Koons and Jane Baker became two of 22 participants on St. Olaf’s first iteration of its signature study abroad program that has continued uninterrupted for 50 years, with one or two faculty leaders taking 25 to 30 students each fall semester and Interim to countries in Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia.
That first group began its journey in Rome and Athens, traveling on to Israel, Jordan, Ethiopia, Kenya, India, Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan over the course of five months. “Kyoto proved challenging as university students were participating in anti-American riots because of the Vietnam War,” Doug says. The group relocated from Kyoto University to a mountain retreat center to avoid the violence and to study the arts of Japan.
A six-week stay in India captivated the couple, with Doug and Jane calling it the tie that bound the whole Global experience together. “In 1968, India was exotic to us: the heat, the bold colors, the flora and the fauna — everything was a marvel,” Doug says. “We saw wrapped bodies floating in the Ganges River that had been delivered for eternity or rebirth. We spent three days on a houseboat in Kashmir. We just fell in love with it all.”
The couple maintains strong bonds to India today, owning a home in Tamil Nadu, where in 2007, after retiring from careers in business and the arts, they established a library system for nearly 100 village and town schools. Jane also created an English language curriculum that benefits tens of thousands of Indian children each year.
GLOBAL’S IMPACT ON OLES
The Koons’s experience on Global is just one of many. Nearly 1,200 students have participated in the program, and every group has its own stories that are testimonials to Global’s impact, as well as proof of the lifelong bonds it creates among participants.
“Underlying all of the friendships and cultural encounters are the academic courses that are the substance of any term abroad,” says Professor Emeritus of Art and Art History Mac Gimse ’58, who, with either his wife, Jackie, or his daughter, Gracia Gimse McKinley ’89, led Global four times. The program includes classes taught by local experts at four academic stops, with a St. Olaf faculty member teaching a course tied to his or her scholarly interests and expertise.
“What makes the learning powerful is the environment in which it happens,” says Gimse, who taught the history of architecture on Global. “It’s not real until it’s personal, and what better way to learn architecture than standing in some of the world’s most important ruins, cathedrals, and temples?”
Karla Hult ’95, a reporter for the NBC television affiliate KARE-11 in Minneapolis, was part of the Gimses’ second Global program in 1994–95. “Mac and Jackie were tremendously good leaders who truly enjoyed the adventure and academics alongside the students,” she says. “They made sure we immersed ourselves in a culture, learned about it academically, and experienced it personally through interactions — sometimes heartrending — with those we met.”
Academic rigor on Global was important for Professor Emeritus of Philosophy Walter Stromseth ’50 and his wife, Betty Johnson Stromseth ’53, retired director of international studies, who together led the 1988–89 program. Walt taught a course on the philosophy of religion as the group studied history in Egypt, developmental economics in India, art in Taiwan, and religion in Japan.
“We worried that Global might cause cultural indigestion by moving so fast through four very different cultures,” Walt says. “To counteract that, I assigned a book on the religious heritage of each culture to be read before we arrived in-country. It was a good academic balance to the more experiential and interactive aspects of the program.”
Occasionally, a world event brought unexpected clarity to Global’s academic programming. The 2001–02 group, led by Religion Professor John Barbour and Art Professor Meg Ojala, learned this firsthand on 9/11 in Cairo.
“One of our themes was looking at the ways different religions view each other,” Barbour says. “You can’t imagine a more compelling event than 9/11 in terms of the academic study of religion suddenly connecting to the real world.”
The group was sequestered in its Cairo hotel in the days immediately following the attack, having canceled field trips to the Sinai Desert and Alexandria. Barbour and Ojala were in regular contact with St. Olaf, and ultimately made the decision to keep the program going, even in the face of deep parental concern back in the United States.
“It was a very anxious time, and we were all wondering, ‘Are there going to be more attacks on Americans around the world?’ ” Barbour says. “I felt we were, in all likelihood, going to be safe.” The program went on, without incident, although a subsequent hijacking at the Mumbai Airport understandably made the group a bit jittery. “It’s a credit to the students, who were able to handle the stress while looking for meaning in these events.”
The group was buoyed by expressions of sympathy they received from Egyptians and Indians, says Barbour, recalling a non-English-speaking taxi driver in Cairo who mimed sadness with hand gestures. “He mimicked planes flying into towers, then placed his fingers on his face like tears rolling down his cheeks,” Barbour says. “It was genuinely moving.”
It is a testament to St. Olaf that Global Semester has never been canceled or shortened due to catastrophic events, natural disasters, or other calamities. The program has become a well-greased machine in its 50 years, due in part to the efforts of Kathy Tuma, associate director of International and Off-Campus Studies.
At St. Olaf since 1975, she has been responsible for keeping Global running smoothly for 42 years, coordinating its logistics while keeping communication lines open between faculty leaders and longtime institutional partners like the American University in Cairo, Kyoto University, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and the Ecumenical Christian Center outside Bangalore, India.
“We have wonderful relationships with our partners overseas,” Tuma says. “Many past participants will know the name John Swanson, an expat living in Cairo who for years would come to St. Olaf in the summer to meet with faculty leaders and bang out a schedule. In Egypt, he’d take students out into the desert to Giza and other sites [with] the nonstop energy of a camel. The students would be completely exhilarated by one of his tours. It’s because of these types of relationships that Global works, period.”
Even with St. Olaf’s meticulous planning, unforeseen circumstances — such as renewed concern for the safety of Americans traveling to certain regions — sometimes necessitated a change of itinerary, requiring the flexibility of every participant, particularly in the early days of the program, when professors and students had little to no communication with folks back home and needed to make in-the-moment decisions.
“We strive to keep students safe,” says Tuma. “Anytime there is an incident in a location where our students are studying, or about to study, we contact a variety of sources — the State Department, the U.S. Embassy or Consulate, our on-site program partners, and the accompanying field supervisors. We take advice from all of these sources to make a decision on whether we need to get a group out of an area or make a decision not to send them to an area. There is no one plan, because no two incidents are alike.”
Helene MacCallum ’73, who recently retired as St. Olaf’s coordinator of program advising and student activities in the Office of International and Off-Campus Studies, went on the fifth Global Semester in 1972–73.
“Back in those days, they just sent you off, with not a lot of direction,” she says. “We were very autonomous. We called home once, and occasionally Gerry [Professor Emeritus of Psychology Gerald Ericksen] would send a cable back to the college.”
The group began with sightseeing in Rome and Greece, then traveled to Israel, arriving on the same day as the bodies of the 11 Israeli athletes killed at the Munich Olympics. The students were instructed to set their passports in their laps and not move their hands while guards with machine guns searched the plane. “That was our first introduction to ‘You’re not in Minnesota anymore,’ ” MacCallum says. “It was a very tumultuous time in the world, but we felt invincible at age 21.”
MacCallum shares other incredible adventures: rerouting to Sri Lanka for a month — where the arrival of 30-some Americans warranted a front-page news article — after being denied visas into India; eventually making it to the subcontinent minus their faculty leaders, the Ericksens (the Indians “thought U.S. teachers were CIA agents”), who flew on to Hong Kong without the students; a spontaneous three-day stop in Burma; hanging out with American GIs on leave from the Vietnam War in Bangkok; being trapped between two landslides on a Taiwanese mountainside and sleeping on the floor of a French priest’s home in a nearby village.
“Once you’ve had these kinds of experiences, you can never go back to being the naïve person you were,” MacCallum says.
GAINING NEW EXPERIENCES
The lessons learned on Global Semester are as varied as the participants, but a few seem to hold true for many, including a more nuanced understanding of the diversity of the human condition, an abiding appreciation for differing cultures, and an adaptability to new experiences.
Ryan Palmer ’01, a franchise attorney in Minneapolis, says he had a black-and-white snapshot view of the world, and that “Global was the full-color, panoramic, wall-sized poster.” While sites like the Taj Mahal, the Egyptian pyramids, and the Great Wall certainly were program highlights, his interactions with people — both with Oles and with those he met along the way — have stuck with him.
“Everywhere we went, people were interested in us, and we were interested in them,” Palmer says. “They wanted to know our perspective on the world as Americans, and we learned how the world works from their view. We began to understand that our opinions aren’t the only opinions that matter.”
Palmer often left these encounters feeling powerless, especially when the people he met were living in abject poverty. So he and Bo Connelly ’02 started a fundraising endeavor called Beyond Global. The nonprofit raised funds to pass on to future Global groups to make donations to organizations at their discretion, such as buying books for an orphanage or providing clothing for a women’s shelter. “We wanted to help others feel some connection to the people they met, and to leave feeling like they’d made a small difference,” Palmer says.
Rachel Stranghoener ’10 recalls living in Cairo during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast, from dawn to dusk. “A lot of us tried to fast as well, partly out of a desire to assimilate and partly by default, because in an Islamic society you can’t purchase food during the day in Ramadan. But it was 110 degrees and we were jetlagged, so it was not easy or comfortable,” she says.
The experience allowed Stranghoener and her classmates to break away from what she called Global’s “choreographed schedule” by asking to join local families who were eating dinner just outside their front doors after sundown. “We’d been given a lot of warnings about Egypt being a tough place for women to be at ease, so we came in with our defenses up,” Stranghoener says. “We soon learned it was a wonderfully welcoming and friendly place.”
Stranghoener, who works as a business strategist and management consultant at McKinsey & Company in Minneapolis, says that Global gave her the skills to embrace and adapt to new — and sometimes difficult — situations, but that she also gained a new appreciation for home.
“Global changed me in ways that I probably don’t even realize yet,” she says. “You see things that affect you and open your eyes, and so I am a different person with a broader worldview. But I also have this deep love for home and can empathize with people new to the United States who are pressured to assimilate, but often cling to the familiar. What you know becomes precious and wonderful when it’s no longer your daily reality.”
For Mike Ehrhardt ’89, headmaster of Cary Academy in Raleigh, North Carolina, going on Global was an opportunity to travel to numerous countries and see what the world had to offer.
“Global was about opening my eyes to so many different perspectives,” Ehrhardt says. “If you’d told me that I’d spend a month in museums in Taiwan, I would have thought that was the most boring use of my time, but it was so fascinating learning about the history of Chinese art,” he says. “To be learning about cultures while being physically located in them made everything that much more real.”
Ehrhardt had some fun as well, like motorcycling around Kathmandu, Nepal, and hiring Sherpas to go trekking in the foothills of Mt. Everest while on a break from the program. The whole of his experience on Global changed his life trajectory, he says.
“I was so naïve and Global was the universe saying, ‘Ha-ha, Mike, we have a plan for you,’ ” he says. He and his wife, Krista Giddings ’90, who was also on the 1988–89 program, have lived internationally, teaching at American schools in Cyprus, Brazil, and England, something Ehrhardt says they never would have considered without having gone on Global.
“We gained the confidence to navigate the world on our own,” says Ehrhardt, who noted that Global also taught him to check his assumptions about other places and cultures. “The reality of people’s lives is much more nuanced than what we read in the news,” he says. “An enduring lesson from Global is to resist making snap judgements.”
SUSTAINING AN AROUND-THE-WORLD FOCUS
Global Semester’s participant numbers have been slipping lately, with the 2013 program taking as few as 14 students, a decrease likely due to the significant cost of the program. In recent years, total costs per student have ranged from $10,000 to $13,000 above St. Olaf’s comprehensive fee, putting the program out of reach for many students.
Thanks to a generous gift from Lynn and Larry Stranghoener, both Class of 1976, that financial barrier has been lifted. Inspired in part by their daughter Rachel’s experience on Global, the Stranghoeners established an endowed fund as part of St. Olaf’s For the Hill and Beyond capital campaign, which will cover the additional cost of Global for up to 20 participants beginning in fall 2017. The gift will sustain the program well into the future, making it accessible to all students, regardless of economic background.
Global also will soon have a new look, based on the results of a 2016 program review conducted by a committee of faculty and staff. In 2017, the program will end just before Christmas each year and, in 2018, will include month-long academic stays in Tanzania, Argentina, and China, as well as stops in Egypt and India.
“Global has changed over the years, but not as much as you might think. It’s become somewhat Asia heavy and needed freshening to sustain its around-the-world focus,” Tuma says. “We’re excited that Global will soon go to South America and sub-Saharan Africa.”
Students and Political Science Professor Kris Thalhammer will begin the 2018 program learning about sustainable development at the United Nations in New York City. In Tanzania, they’ll work on issues of public health; in China, they’ll study political economy; and in Argentina, they’ll examine the use of art in memorializing history, as well as how collective memory shapes identity.
“Now is such an interesting moment in time in terms of citizenship issues,” Thalhammer says. “I’m interested in exploring with students how different countries handle diversity of religion, race, ethnicity, language — all ideas of identity — and what makes someone truly feel like they belong to a society. Global is a great program for exploring these issues that are relevant domestically and internationally.”
Global Semester is here to stay, benefiting from St. Olaf’s longstanding relationships with institutions and academic partners around the world and taking advantage of faculty expertise and connections in new regions.
Gimse says he’s glad that Global will continue. He notes that he subscribes to the following quotation from Wade Davis, an anthropologist and ethnobiologist for the National Geographic Society, which Gimse shared with students who traveled with him on Global: “The world into which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”
Global’s purpose is to build a “vision of ancient foundations to contemporary aspirations in architecture, religion, politics, social structures, and daily living habits” in each location the program visits, Gimse says. “It is a much more holistic experience than it’s given credit for, I believe,” he says. “St. Olaf’s commission — through programs like Global — is to help students engage with people of other cultures to understand their practices and beliefs. We want students to come home transformed, with a new perspective on the human condition around the globe.”