Studying abroad gives locals a new view

Posted: Sunday, July 08, 2001

Brent Vollenweider is studying architectural engineering in Colorado, but some of his studies have taken him farther away from his Juneau home. Through a Semester at Sea program, he cruised to Asia, Africa and South America, including a stop at the tallest building in the world, the 88-floor Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

"The Twin Towers was the highlight of the modern stuff I saw, although the ancient stuff was amazing and the vernacular construction of homes was interesting," Vollenweider said. "In Kenya, homes were made of small twigs and mud and even manure."

Vollenweider, attending the University of Colorado at Boulder, is one of several students from Juneau traveling the globe as part of their education. Others include Piper Platte, who journeyed to India, Nepal and Tibet, and Katy Beedle, who traveled to Italy and Kenya. All three are members of the Juneau-Douglas High School class of 1998.

Vollenweider, 21, spent the fall of 2000, on a Universe Explorer cruise that left Vancouver and stopped at Japan, China, Vietnam, India, South Africa, Brazil, Cuba and New Orleans. The 750 students spent 100 days on board the floating university, studying humanities and some science, plus the culture and history of each port visited.

"It definitely opened my eyes to other people in the world. It was actually quite shocking because a lot of the countries were Third World," Vollenweider said. "Now when I look at a map, I realize these aren't just dots. There are people there trying to live."

Semester at Sea cost $13,000 plus fees for shore excursions. In addition to the Twin Towers, he visited the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in India.

Vollenweider also studied in Europe with the Denmark International Studies Program, taking "rigorous" architecture classes and immersing himself in Danish by sharing a home with a Copenhagen resident for four months.

"You got to know one place extremely well and see the subtle nuances of the culture you couldn't see if you were there for five days," he said.

Piper Platte, an English literature major at Middlebury College in Vermont, flew to Dharamsala, India, in February for a Tibetan Studies Program.

There were far fewer amenities than Vollenweider found on her educational cruise. Platte, 21, shared a 15-by-15-foot room with an 80-year-old father, a 40-year-old mother and their 20-year-old son. There was no running water and no toilet. A typical meal was meat curry over rice or potstickers. During the day, she attended classes with 18 other students.

"I was really interested in seeing the people and being in their homes. What I got to see was way beyond my wildest imagination," Platte said.

She traveled on to Tibet for parts of March and April, and then to Nepal for a month and a half. In Nepal she studied with a 72-year-old traditional Tibetan doctor who lived in a remove valley in the Anapurnas, a five-day walk from any road.

"Tibet looked like the Middle Ages. People bathe once a year and live in wild settings. They can be at 17,000 feet, just sitting on the ground watching their yaks," she said. "Sometimes you would be invited to sleep on the floor of their mud huts. To be able to make this connection with something so foreign was just out of this world."

Although many of the people she met had little in the way of worldly goods, she was impressed by their fortitude.

"People are so quick to laugh and smile and bring you into their home and share everything that they have. They are quick to bridge the gap," she said.

"I felt like this broke down my character and built it back up with all different rhythms and perspectives," said Platte, working this summer as a guide with Alaska Discovery Kayak Expeditions.

Katy Beedle, studying English and religious studies at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution in Spokane, Wash., spent two semesters in Florence, Italy, followed by a brief safari in Kenya.

"I chose the Florence year because all the classes are taught in English. You go to school four days a week. The first semester, you travel all over Italy on the three-day weekends, and then second semester you travel all over Europe with Eurail Pass," she said.

Beedle, 21 and a tour guide at Dimond Island Pink and Chum hatchery, said studying overseas increased her sense of self-reliance.

"Juneau is a great place to live but a little bit isolated. So I learned how to use my resources," she said.

She said her time in Italy also gave her an increased appreciation for art.

"After seeing the Pieta and David, you realize how real they can be; how much they can communicate. I have never looked at art the way I do now," Beedle said.

She hopes to earn a certificate of ministry. After graduation, she plans to join the Jesuit Volunteer program and return to Africa.

All three students recommended similar excursions for others.

"I didn't really know why I needed this experience until I had it," said Beedle. "You come back with a fuller, different perspective of the world, on life and how many opportunities there are out there in a world this big."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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