From 2014 until 2018 , the Wilson Scholars Program, founded by App State alumni Brad and Carole Wilson, has accepted freshmen in groups ranging from four to six into its educational program of four years, along with stipends to study abroad. Scholars who graduated at the top of their high school class, demonstrated service and leadership, and contained a passion for learning were selected.
Although the Wilson scholarship has selected its final class of scholars, the new six young women have only begun to embark on their educational journeys.
The first-year scholars will jet for their fifth annual Costa Rica trip in January to study Nicaraguan immigration and to serve local communities, but hope to expand their minds in the most sustainable and ethical ways possible and to set an example for others.
“There’s something about studying abroad that to me is really vital to my education because it’s being able to expand your mental map of reality,” Mollie Donovan, freshman scholar and sociocultural anthropology major, said. “It’s getting out and seeing things from a totally different cultural perspective.”
Donovan, a Florida native and first-time academic traveler, said she is grateful for the trips’ themes of leadership and service, as well as adaptation to her own interests and studies.
“It seems like a focused opportunity, but you can find what you’re looking for in an opportunity like this,” Donovan said.
Although the scholars are participating in service abroad, they want to be more focused on learning and engaging with the Costa Rican community, Annie Manges, freshman scholar and global studies major, said.
“We don’t want to go with the attitude that we’re traveling and serving there because we think that they need an American touch, that they need our help,” Manges said. “We’re looking at this trip more as an opportunity to grow and learn from them.”
Throughout the past trips of Wilson Scholars, three of them have been spent in Costa Rica due to its dry season, proximity and applicability to all focuses of the scholars, Mike Mayfield, faculty director of Wilson Scholars and geography professor, said.
Mayfield said the scholars have been studying the immigration and labor issues of Costa Rica in their weekly seminars. Nicaraguans are immigrating to Costa Rica due to Nicaragua’s election results last spring and are working long hours in the Costa Rican coffee fields. Mayfield said this can be mirrored not only in the U.S. with the caravan, but in Boone as well.
“Whether it’s the Christmas tree industry here in Watauga County, or restaurants, or the folks who are out here trying to seal up some water leaks in Rankin North, many of those heavy labor, low-wage jobs are held by immigrants from Latin American countries,” Mayfield said.
The scholars will participate in these heavy labor activities on their trip, including replanting trees to ease carbon dioxide amounts, helping with the turtle conservation movement in Costa Rica and globally, and picking up trash in communities and nature.
Mayfield and the scholars said they are eager to tackle service projects, yet are aware of the time they have to leave a small footprint of Mountaineer pride in Costa Rica.
“With 10 days in a country, we recognize that you really can’t expect to affect significant change as a short-term visitor to another country,” Mayfield said. “My feeling about it is, it’s us who will be impacted far more than any communities we might serve.”
Donovan said service is not the purpose of the study abroad. The program is about the exchange of culture, knowledge and relationships that make an educational experience hard to forget.
This exchange can come easily to some students and hard to others. Traveling can be expensive and nerve-racking for students. Donovan said traveling is no longer a luxury thanks to increasing technology and financial aid. Ordinary students are taking a leap into exploration through study abroad programs.
“It’s not about making an impact by like standing up, like ‘I have all these titles,’” Donovan said. “Honestly, I’m just a student. My goal is to just be as friendly as possible and to encourage people to be leaders of their own lives.”
Manges, who had traveled to Costa Rica and South Africa, said she’s learned there are many scholarship opportunities for travel abroad experiences by serving on the business committee of International Appalachian.
Mayfield said taking freshman Wilson Scholars will be different traveling because they will be traveling so early in their college life.
“In some ways, it provides much greater potential for them to seek places they want to go, topics they want to study, and they’ve been doing some great research in preparation for that,” Mayfield said. “It opens some doors.”
Freshman or senior, the moments of study abroad still manage to heavily impact students’ careers and lives, Mayfield said.
“I love doing this,” Mayfield said as he recalled a former student eventually moving to Costa Rica due to the impact it had on them. “It’s an eye-opening trip”.
Mayfield said the scholars are eager to share what they have learned with App State when they get back. In the meantime, they encourage people to explore wherever they are.
“As a college student, if you have the means to travel, I feel it’s very important to just observe and to just get lost,” Donovan said. “(To) not go with expectations, but just go with ‘OK, let’s see what happens’.
Story by Emily Broyles