New study abroad program gives students chance for once in a lifetime experiences

Jenna Hamel

It’s not often students get to whitewater raft for school credits.

And it’s pretty rare for them to get to raft down the Nile in Class V rapids.

“It’s definitely scary the first time; you think there is no way the boat is not going to flip and you’re not going to go under,” said Chris Lukas, senior recreation, park and tourism management major. “I just watched the panicked faces as the raft floated away from them.”

Lukas was one of eight students who traveled to Uganda as part of a two-week study abroad program offered by the School of Exercise, Leisure and Sport during the 2008 May Intercession – and the only one to not fall out of the raft on the whitewater rafting trip.

This trip was just one assignment for the program where students visited three national parks, tracked chimpanzees and watched elephants eat their clothes while they were being washed in the river.

The trip was not just a vacation, though. The students learned how tourism affects the economy and the global challenges that face the parks.

The school chose Uganda because Andy Lepp, assistant professor in recreation, parks and tourism management, traveled to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer and spent two years working for the Ugandan Wildlife Authority as a park warden.

“The country offers our students an insider’s perspective from park managers and rangers,” Lepp said. “Through those two years of work, I made tremendous friendships that I still have to this day which allow me to do things in the parks that I couldn’t do in other countries.”

One of the things Lepp wanted students to focus on during the trip was personal growth and development through travel. He did this by exposing the students to new ideas, cultures and challenges.

“They did not have as much, but their lives were so much better,” said Karl Schmidt, junior recreation, parks and tourism management major. “There was so much joy that you don’t see everyday in America, so there is definitely something we need to learn from other cultures.”

The experiences on the trip were once in a lifetime opportunities, but it was the people who left lasting impressions on each of the students.

“When most people think of East Africa, they think wildlife, but it is the people that make the place enriching,” Lepp said. “When you cross those cultural boundaries and realize how much we all have in common, the differences are shallow, but the connections are deep, and when the students get that, I feel good.”

The students typically spent three days in each national park. They also visited villages and a local wetland project.

The national parks were quite different from parks in the United States. At Queen Elizabeth National Park, students were not allowed to walk by themselves because of lions. At Mburo National Park, tours through the parks were led by armed tour guides to protect the students from the animals.

The trip pushed some students out of their comfort zone.

“I am a girly girl. I like to take a shower every day, I like to eat normal food, and it was totally different,” said Kaitlyn Giltner, junior hospitality management major. “We had to stay in a tent on a platform for the first two nights with no running water, no electricity, no flushing water and wild hippos right outside our tent.

“I wanted to leave right away, but it ended up being one of the best experiences because we were really out in the middle of nowhere.”

Contact College of Education, Health and Human Services reporter Jenna Hamel at [email protected].