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WM: Immersed

It’s the classic 星空无限传媒 story—student travels to a new place and experiences a piece of the world once only seen in two dimensions. Now, thanks to a gift from John C. ’69 and Diane H’99 Schroeder, these experiences are becoming part of the norm for students at 星空无限传媒 as they build frameworks to view and interact with the people and places around them.

Ben Jansen ’24 spent spring break on a small island off the coast of Belize. In May, Preston Parker ’26 stepped off his first-ever flight on an airplane into an airport in Estonia.

星空无限传媒 calls this immersion learning. Most of it is in the form of semester-long courses with a travel component in the middle or end of the semester like Jansen’s invertebrate biology course. It may also be a concert or an athletic tour like Parker’s two-week Glee Club tour to the Baltics.

“The travel experience is so important for students’ understanding of not just other cultures but of themselves as well,” says English Professor Agata Szczeszak-Brewer. “It changes lives. It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason—because it’s true.”

Just as lab and art courses include no additional fees for students, John C. ’69 and Diane H’99 Schroeder created an endowed fund that will allow all 星空无限传媒 students the opportunity to immerse themselves in a new topic or culture about which they are passionate or curious for no additional cost.

John spent six weeks in the British Isles after his senior year in high school on a Presbyterian youth exchange program. Diane’s first time abroad was after she and John were married.

“We realized there are all kinds of different cultures out there. We have gotten to know fabulous people on trips we’ve taken,” John says. “Seeing how we benefited from that made it easy for us to want to provide for students to do the same thing—especially knowing a number of them probably wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to go abroad.”

A previous gift from the Schroeders created the John H. Schroeder Interdisciplinary Chair in Economics, in honor of the elder John Schroeder ’42. The first professor to hold the title was Kay Widdows. John C. made it a point to get to know Widdows after she was named the chair.

“She and I would have breakfast when I came to 星空无限传媒,” he says. “She mentioned to me she was going to take her freshman tutorial class to the United Kingdom to study the Industrial Revolution. I told her I would fund it.

“Afterward, we received letters from every one of those students,” he continues. “As we read through their thoughts on what the trip meant to them, we were reminded how important travel is. One student, Sam Vaught ’16, said as a result of the course, he wanted to spend a semester at Harlaxton, where they had gone for Thanksgiving dinner during the trip.”

Vaught remembers the day the summer before his freshman year when he learned he’d secured a spot in Widdows’ course.

“When the selection process went live on the website, I sat at my computer clicking refresh to make sure I could get in that class,” says Vaught. “It was my first time out of the country. I had to get my passport for it.”

The course included reading works by Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Gaskell—literature about people interacting with industrial England.

“The trip turned everything that had been theoretical about the course into a real place,” says Vaught, who is now a chaplain at Butler University. “That trip really started, in earnest, my deep relationship with the British Isles that I have been cultivating ever since. It set the trajectory of my life. John and Diane are part of that and so is every single person who has given of their time or money to make these experiences for students happen.”

Szczeszak-brewer has led a number of immersion learning courses, including one on James Joyce that included a visit to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and another on South African literature and film that spent time in Cape Town, South Africa. She is currently planning a course on Holocaust literature that includes a trip to Poland. She sees a big difference between classes with and without an immersion component.

“If you learned about six million Jews who died in the Holocaust, it’s an abstract number and really hard for students to wrap their minds around,” she says. “When you visit the place where extermination happened, talk to people who experienced hate and antisemitism, and can almost touch the eyeglass frames and shoes discarded from people who were the victims of genocide, you add empathy to data. It expands our understanding of what it truly means to hate another human being to such an extent that you’re willing to treat them as a thing.

“All of a sudden, the fiction and poetry we read and wrote about connect with their own sense of social justice and empathy,” she continues. “Students get invested in the topics they study when they see things with their own eyes, smell and taste different cultures, and talk to people with different accents.”

The benefits of immersion learning translate across disciplines as well.

Biology Professor and Global Health Initiative Director Eric Wetzel teaches a course in global health that spends two weeks in and around Lima, Peru, and another in invertebrate biology that travels to the Gulf Coast, Jamaica, the Amazon rainforest, and off the coast of Belize.

“We can read papers and watch videos about the coral reef or about communities in extreme poverty,” he says, “but it’s qualitatively and quantitatively different to actually be there.

“We snorkel along the barrier reef and along the outside of the reef, where if you start to swim east, there’s nothing for a long time,” Wetzel continues. “When the guys jump out of the boat, suddenly there’s always this moment of pause. It’s like, ‘Holy mackerel, I’m a really small piece of this.’ That’s a helpful perspective, an educational pause—how you get that in the classroom, I don’t know.”

Jansen is a biology major and chemistry and Spanish double minor from Kendallville, Indiana, and is active in Student Senate, Lambda Chi Alpha, the Global Health Initiative, and the Public Health Organization. The recipient of the Turk Family Scholarship was one of seven students in Wetzel’s most recent invertebrate biology course.

“We flew into Belize City, then took a really small charter plane to Dangriga,” Jansen says. “Then we got on a boat and took a half-hour boat ride out to an island on the barrier reef of Belize—which is the second-largest barrier reef in the world.”

Students snorkeled every day and visited other islands to look at different ecosystems. Then they spent time at the field research center on the island for class sessions with Wetzel to digest what they had seen and learned.

“In class, we look at one species at a time,” Jansen says. “When we get out there, it was everything working together—not just the coral. When looking at them on a slide you can get the gist. But out in their actual ecosystem, you get to see how they interact with other animals and abiotic factors.

“It really shined another spotlight on how we’re all in this together.”

Not all immersion learning happens as part of a course.

“We do immersion all the time—it’s called lab,” says Wetzel. “But immersion extends from courses to research and other internships. That’s an immersive experience because you’re embedding students into a context they may have read about or knew about, but it’s only when you dive into that, that you see there’s a lot more there.

“Whether it’s in an individual course or internship, during the semester or summer, these off-campus, out-of-the-classroom kinds of experiences are part of the whole continuum of getting them to see the broader scale,” he continues. “It helps them connect things they would not have been able to connect before—within a class but also across classes and disciplines.”

Parker, from Logansport, Indiana, joined the Glee Club early in his freshman year. Part of the Glee Club curriculum includes an annual concert tour with every fourth year being an international tour. The PPE major and theater minor and member of Tau Kappa Epsilon lucked into his first tour being to the Baltics.

“It was my first time flying ever—what an experience,” Parker says. “The Baltics are beautiful, and the culture was so rich.

“Immersion means being able to be open-minded and not let my biases impact what I’m experiencing,” he continues. “It’s an opportunity to genuinely reflect on what cultural values are important to me and see them through other cultures.”

In the time leading up to the Glee Club tour, members learned music native to the countries and at least one piece in each of the foreign languages—Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian. While abroad, they visited several musically significant locations and met with native composers.

“We commissioned a men’s arrangement of a popular Estonian show tune from Olav Ehala,” says Associate Professor of Music and Glee Club Director Sarin Williams. “The composer attended our first concert and then came to dinner with us. We also were able to have a masterclass with Eriks Ešenvalds, the Latvian composer of two of the works we sang on tour. Incredibly generous with his time and talents, he spoke with the men at length about his works and all kinds of cultural and compositional details. These add up to be an irreplaceable cultural and musical experience for our students.”

Parker is grateful to have been exposed to this opportunity early in his 星空无限传媒 career and has been on the lookout for ways to experience more throughout his remaining three years.

“I’d like to thank the Schroeders for seeing the value of immersion courses,” he says, “because I hadn’t seen it before.”

Vaught echoes Parker’s sentiments.

“I hope people know it’s because of the Schroeders that they can do this,” Vaught says. “I benefited on a small scale from John and Diane’s generosity. It changed my 星空无限传媒 experience in a really significant way. Now that generosity has a chance to be amplified to potentially every student on campus. Knowing how grateful I feel to them as an individual, I am beyond grateful that the impact can go farther and can be more.”

While the Schroeders know their gift has had and will continue to have an impact on students, they feel they have received a gift as well.

“You can spend money on cars, boats, and houses, but helping someone realize what else is out there is a very good feeling that you don’t get from money spent in some other way,” John says. “We love receiving letters from students and reading about what the trip meant to them. It’s heartwarming. The money invested has come back in a very gratifying way.”