Unshaken: NWU students navigate risks and reap rewards of international study

When Nebraska Wesleyan University administrators awoke on March 11 to the news of the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, they worried for everyone’s safety. Five NWU students on study trips to Japan came to mind first. Four were studying at Nebraska Wesleyan’s sister institution, Kwansei Gakuin University in Nishinomiya, and the fifth was in Nagoya.

Fortunately, both cities were hundreds of miles from the epicenter. Even had the quake struck closer to Kwansei Gakuin, the NWU students would have been safe. KGU was on semester break. As the earth shook, triggering a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown, the four NWU students were travelling in China. And while Matthew Hegstrom felt the aftershocks in Nagoya, he was also safe.

Still, the tragedy in Japan capped a year of anxious moments for NWU students abroad and their families back home. “It’s been a crazy year,” said Kaycie Rupp (’11).

Rupp wasn’t among those studying at KGU. But she’s quite familiar with disasters’ catalytic nature. Rupp was abroad last summer when another earthquake kicked off a different chain of devastating events. This quake triggered not a tsunami but a volcano eruption.

Rupp and seven other NWU students were in Guatemala for a Global Service Learning trip in late May 2010. They’d planned to climb that volcano the following day. They’d spent the previous 10 days building low income housing in Antigua, and the group wanted to wrap up their trip with a little sightseeing and volcano scaling. “About 27 hours later and we’d have been on it,” she said.

The eruption dumped ash over much of Guatemala and covered runways at the Antigua airport, delaying the Nebraska Wesleyan students’ flight home. Then came Tropical Storm Agatha.

“The rain hit that ash and turned it into this weird cement-like crust,” Rupp said. That combination of ash and heavy rain complicated the cleanup effort at the airport, and it quickly became clear that the group of NWU students wouldn’t be flying anywhere soon. And the rain kept falling.

“I can’t speak for the group,” Rupp said. “A lot of students had good reasons to want to get back home—family events and things. But when I found out we’d be staying in Guatemala longer, I was excited. Excited to stay and excited to help.”

Just like the earthquakes in Japan and Guatemala, Tropical Storm Agatha would send its own disastrous dominos falling. First came the Guatemala City sinkhole. The chasm, 60 feet wide and an astounding 30 stories deep, swallowed buildings. Then came more extensive flooding. Then came the mudslides.

While the mudslides struck just a little over a mile from where the NWU students were, Rupp said the group was never in any real danger. Stranded by ash and rain, they had to decide how best to spend their time. To Rupp, the choice was clear. “We were there to do service,” she said.

So the students contacted another agency coordinating cleanup efforts and walked to the site. “I remember walking toward the area and thinking, ‘This really isn’t as bad as I imagined.’” Rupp saw a rain-soaked mess, but not a travesty. “Then we turned a corner and I heard a gasp. I looked and it was like night and day.”

Parked cars were up to their doors in mud. A yellow school bus seemed to have no wheels whatsoever. The street itself was a muddy creek with huge clumpy banks sloping up waist-deep to the huddled, mud-filled structures on either side.

“We emptied out houses one bucketful at a time.” Rupp described a process where chains of Guatemalans and others from all over the world who happened to be serving or visiting then passed full buckets out of homes to be emptied into the street.

I remember walking toward the area
and thinking, "This isn't as bad as I imagined." Then we turned a corner
and I heard a gasp.

From there, the process paralleled what many alumni would recognize as snow removal after a blizzard—if snow were messier, denser and unwilling to melt in the warmth. Bulldozers pushed the debris into mountains of muck at the ends of streets to be trucked away.

“I expected devastation and utter sadness,” Rupp said. But that’s not what she found working alongside local homeowners who’d lost so much. “We were met instead with hope and humor and human resilience.”

The tropical storm triggered one more monumental change. Before Agatha, Rupp liked Guatemala. She liked Guatemalans. After Agatha, she saw a depth of character that had been invisible to her before. When you first meet someone as he mucks out his ruined home with a bucket, you cannot help but know him on a deeper level than you would have had you met him, say, over coffee. After Agatha—after three days of clearing out mud like wet cement and more mud like cake batter—Rupp loved Guatemala. She loved Guatemalans.

Meanwhile, the students’ parents could only watch cable news and worry from afar. The picture they got from media didn’t jibe with the good-humored resolve the students described on phone calls home. They saw only anarchy and sorrow on TV.

“Are you sure you’re okay? Are you sure it’s safe?” they asked. “It looks absolutely horrible on the news.”

The discrepancy between what the Global Service Learning students experienced in Guatemala and the picture painted in the media didn’t surprise Brenda Bence (‘83) of Singapore. Bence is perhaps Nebraska Wesleyan’s strongest advocate for international study. “I can give you example after example after example of how the news dramatizes a lot of what happens overseas.”

What struck Japan in March was one of the rare events that transcended the hyperbolic nature of cable news. Its devastation simply couldn’t be exaggerated. CNN cannot aggrandize an ocean swallowing a coast and spitting it back out.

But Bence is steadfast. World events—even of this magnitude—cannot shake NWU or sway its students from the value of international service and study.

She said, “I’m not trying to be cavalier. I understand the nervousness parents feel when their sons and daughters travel abroad.” One can never be sure what might happen abroad. Likewise, she said, one can never be sure what might happen at home. Students simply cannot afford to allow anxiety to curtail their international experiences. “International study used to be the exception. Now it’s the price of entry,” she said, for leadership opportunities in a global marketplace.

Still, Bence doesn’t advocate thoughtless risks. Prior to her move to Singapore, Bence lived in Bangkok, Thailand, for 11 years—“longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life.” But political unrest and economic uncertainty there and attractive business opportunities in Singapore pushed Bence to leave a city she loved. In fact, she’d been set to host Global Service Learning students in Bangkok before safety concerns triggered a change in destination. (Ironically, Guatemala, with its flowing lava and sliding mud, was Global Service Learning’s safety destination.)

Rather than shirking fearfully or advancing blindly, Bence encourages students and parents to have accurate, rational perspectives on risk when traveling. She described traveling in Asia during the 2003 SARS scare—a time when perceived danger far outweighed actual risk. “You could shake hands with 3,000 people a day in Asia and not touch someone with SARS for 30 years,” she said. She looked rationally at the risks and determined there was little to worry about. She described flying on nearly empty planes and visiting famous—and almost desolate—places.

“It was the perfect time to travel,” Bence remembered. “We had all these places virtually to ourselves.”

Bence described a much larger risk she took on a recent trip to Greece. There, she decided to get a haircut from a barber she couldn’t really communicate with. “What was I thinking?” She laughed. “I had more hair when I was born!”

Risky haircuts aside, Bence claimed no regrets in her travels. “The downsides (to travel) are infinitesimal. And the upsides are truly incredible.”

Would Rupp say the same? Or would weaving her way around six distinct disasters in three chaotic days in Guatemala leave her a little gun-shy?

Her plans speak for themselves. The May graduate is moving to Antigua in the fall. There, she’ll work full-time building homes for the same agency she and the other Global Service Learning students helped last summer.