Cultures, Countries and Comradery: UVA Wise Study Abroad

Group of students and faculty with UVA Wise flag

While UVA Wise provides excellent learning opportunities at home in Southwest Virginia, studying abroad has offered students an additional exhilarating experience for more than a decade. 

This past spring, UVA Wise students studied abroad in Ireland and Nepal and this summer in Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

“We have students here who have never left the area, some are coming straight from Wise to places like Nepal, and for some, it’s their first time flying. The value they get from these trips is immense,” said Zafar Khan, professor of economics and finance. 

“I learned to take every opportunity presented to you, not only while visiting abroad, but in everyday life. Life is too short not to branch out and try new things,” said Madison McConnell, whose study abroad trip this year to Croatia was her first time traveling outside of the U.S. “The study abroad program at UVA Wise has provided me with amazing opportunities, and I have learned so much about life and the way I view the world. 

With sister schools all around the world, including Germany, Japan and France, UVA Wise provides students with short trips and full semesters abroad. All credits achieved abroad go towards the completion of a degree and allow students to gain experience without sacrificing academic momentum. 

While traveling abroad can be expensive, a part of the College’s strategic plan, “Your College for a Lifetime,” has made experiential learning like study abroad a priority. The study abroad program is made possible in part by the generosity of donors whose gifts have established study abroad scholarships.

Three Countries, Three Cultures in Eastern Europe

UVA Wise students, led by Heather Evans, John Morton Beaty Endowed Chair in Political Science, and Cyndi Newlon, Instructor of English and Director of the Writing Center, visited the cities of Dubrovnik and Split in Croatia, as well as the cities of Perast and Kotor in Montenegro, and Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

The trip included visiting many filming locations from the “Game of Thrones” television series, learning about the history and politics of the region, and meeting with a representative from the U.S. Embassy in Croatia. 

“Traveling to Croatia was my first time out of the United States. I have always loved the mountains and was born and raised in Southwest Virginia. However, experiencing the beauty and elegance of Croatia was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Castlewood native Madison McConnell, a junior majoring in special education with a concentration in mathematics. “I encountered new foods, personalities and beliefs. Most importantly, I discovered a newfound beauty in all aspects of life.” 

Ellie Peterson, a 2024 graduate, also said the 10-day trip was a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience and her first time traveling abroad.

“Dubrovnik was a particularly fascinating city to visit as this town exemplified Roman architecture and still somberly reflects the tragedies of the Croatian War of Independence,” said Peterson, who added that the buildings in Old Town Dubrovnik reveal damage from missiles shot during the war. 

Due to its location on the Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik offers amazing views, beautiful churches and museums promoting the town’s fishing and agricultural economy, Peterson said.

“The drive to Perast took us along the coast and into a bay trimmed by mountains. These towns’ cultures are deeply connected to seafaring. In fact, sailors created an island to hold a church as tribute to the Virgin Mary,” said Peterson, who serves on the College’s Alumni Board. That particular location is known as the islet “Our Lady of the Rocks” in the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro.  

Students learned how Croatia is a relatively new country, which gained its independence in the 1990s. 

“All of the students found it fascinating that there was still visible damage from the war in Dubrovnik. We learned that much of the damage was left to remind citizens how hard Croatia had to fight for its freedom,” said McConnell who received financial assistance from the Sam Gilbert Foreign Study Scholarship for the trip. “I feel that visiting Croatia has impacted my realization of how fortunate we are to live in a free country.”

Support from the Carl W. Smith Bicentennial Scholarship helped fund Peterson’s trip. Peterson said the experiential learning-based trip provided her the opportunity to apply her political science coursework in real life as she learned about Croatia’s government and political history.

McConnell’s favorite part of this trip was visiting Montenegro. 

“The geographical beauty of Montenegro was the simplest, yet most magical sight I have ever seen. There were mountains, which reminded me of home. Hidden in these mountains were the most beautiful statues and architecture,” McConnell said. 

McConnell said she also enjoyed learning about the cultures and new foods like the Mediterranean diet, which consists of tons of seafood and olive oil. 

A Celtic Expedition

Cyndi Newlon and Heather Evans also traveled with students to Ireland during Spring Break this year. 

“I loved the idea of taking students to Ireland or Scotland because many of them have ancestral history there, and I thought it would be an excellent opportunity for those students to get in touch with their heritage,” said Cyndi Newlon, who served as the director of the Ireland trip.

For Senior Cloey Bailey, the trip in part funded by the Carl W. Smith Bicentennial Scholarship was an opportunity to foster some of her own personal interests. This was her second trip abroad.

“I’ve always known that I have Irish roots and have wanted to explore those further,” said Bailey, a Coeburn, Va., native who is majoring in cell and molecular biology and psychology. “Studying abroad in Ireland allowed me to immerse myself in the rich culture of my ancestors, and I am beyond grateful for the experience.”

Over the course of the trip, students had the chance to learn in almost every corner of Ireland—from Belfast in Northern Ireland to Dublin in the south—and many places in between. 

“I wanted students to get a good feel for Ireland, so we took a lot of day trips. In the west, there are unbelievable views and landscapes while the cities were filled with history and culture,” said Newlon.

Students were also able to see many famous filming locations for “Game of Thrones” throughout the trip to Ireland. Evans said, “A lot more things were filmed in Ireland than just ‘Game of Thrones’ so we made it a point to show the students other filming locations like the ‘Harry Potter’ series and ‘The Princess Bride.’” 

Students also learned about the politics of Ireland, both in the North and the South. “We visited Kilmainham Gaol, and I believe it was eye-opening for students to stand in a place where so many men, women, and children were incarcerated, and some men executed,” said Evans.   

“I think the students got a lot out of it. They experienced a different culture and got a new appreciation for their own. I also had some students learn more about their own culture. I had a couple tell me they met people who said the same things that their grandparents say,” said Newlon.

More than a Mountain

Nepal is famously one of the countries that is home to Mount Everest. It also made a great place for UVA Wise students to learn and gain new experiences. 

“The trip to Nepal and India was paradigm shifting.  It was my first time ever leaving the United States, and I couldn’t have had a better introduction to the world beyond U.S. borders,” said UVA Wise student Aidan Sower, a junior majoring in chemistry from Front Royal, Va.

Led by Zafar Khan and Anthony Cashio, professor of philosophy, the trip to India and Nepal studied local religious beliefs. Like India, Nepal is predominately Hindu, while also heavily influenced by Buddhism. 

“Seeing the diversity of religions, from Hinduism to Jainism, and the influence they have on people’s lives was incredible,” said McLean, Va., native Jaeda Fontaine-Rasaiah, a sophomore majoring in political science. Fontaine-Rasaiah’s trip was in part made possible by the Fay Bond & Donald Gillespie International Studies Scholarship.

“Students were fascinated by what they witnessed. We went from one religious place to another seeing different practices. Students were able to witness a Hindu tradition of cremation,” Khan said.

Seven hours after landing in Nepal, Sower said he was jet-lagged when they attended the cremation ceremony.

“It was a fever dream as we moved through the thousands upon thousands of Hindu worshippers singing all together while engulfed in a cloud of incense smoke and gasoline fumes. It was truly incredible,” Sower said.

Breathtaking views and exhilarating adventure sports were another theme of the Nepal trip. 

“It was very insightful, we saw the Himalayas of course, but students also experienced the push for eco-tourism by the Nepalese government. We participated in things like ziplining and close-up flights of the mountains,” Khan said.

Students also went on a safari in a Nepalese national park.

“Our group had close encounters with several one-horned rhinoceroses, which are protected from poaching by the government of Nepal. In fact, there were several army bases in the park that were established to ward off poachers,” Sower said. 

For sophomore Justyn J. Colón Rodríguez, the trip, in part funded by the Hank Johnston International Studies Scholarship,was his first study abroad and intercontinental trip. 

“I am originally from Puerto Rico and my only experience on cultural exchange was when I moved from Puerto Rico to the United States. I was an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) student because of the language barrier that I faced in the classroom,” Rodríguez said. “By being an ESOL student, I met other students and got to hear about their cultures and it made me want to learn more about the world. However, even though I was aware of the difference in cultures, it was not until I got to go India and Nepal and experience it that I actually understood and learned.”

“We took a quick stop in India and went to visit the Taj Mahal before heading back to Wise,” said Khan. 

Rodríguez had always wanted to see the Taj Mahal, he said.

“It took some time to realize that I was in one of the seven wonders of the world,” Rodriguez said. “It was a beautiful thing to see in person.”

“Trips like these are an astounding experience for the students, and I hope for it to be expanded even further one day. You can learn a lot in one semester of college, but nothing compares to what can be experienced abroad,” said Khan.