Ask a Travel Leader: Winthrop University's Michelle Wolf

At South Carolina’s Winthrop University, learning about the world beyond the United States’ border is not a luxury—it’s a requirement.  Every student is expected to participate in the school’s Global Learning Initiative in some way.  So short-term academic travel programs, like those offered by Hart Travel Partners (HTP), are a fantastic way to fulfill those requirements, particularly for those students who have never traveled outside the United States before.

HTP spoke with Travel Leader Michelle Wolf, who is currently planning her third travel program at Winthrop, about her unique approach to creating academically relevant and memorable programs for her students.

What is your role at Winthrop?
I am the Director of the Academic Success Center.  In this role, I serve as a key academic support resource for students.  The Center offers peer tutoring and academic coaching for the undergraduate population.  I get to interact with students and faculty on a daily basis, and teach the freshman seminar course, as well as the tutor training classes.

How did you get involved in planning travel programs for students at Winthrop?
In 2008, I started working for the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia.  One of the programs I supervised was the Global Immersion Experience (GIE) for graduate students in the M.S. in Commerce program.  The GIE was comprised of five weeks abroad and the students were assigned different tracks, such as Europe, Asia, and Southeast Asia.  I was the program director for the Europe track and took 23 students abroad.  After relocation to the Charlotte area, I returned to my former employer, Winthrop, to start the Academic Success Center.  I was excited to be involved in academic support services; however, I missed being involved in educational travel.  So I knew I needed to do something for students at Winthrop.

The country that I have a real passion for is Hungary.  My best friend Zita grew up there so I was intrigued by her childhood stories and her experience living behind the Iron Curtain. One of my Winthrop colleagues, Dr. Scott Huffmon, was awarded a Fulbright and was a scholar in Debrecen, Hungary.   He and I met for coffee to discuss a potential class, with a study abroad component to Central Europe.  Hence, we developed the special topics course, Post-Soviet Democratization: Central Europe.”  The timing of the class coincided with the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain in the former Soviet Union.

We made an excellent team.  Dr. Huffmon created the course curriculum and I worked with HTP to plan our overseas itinerary, recruit students, and basically take care of all the logistical aspects of travel.

What was the result of that initial partnership?
The travel program ran from May 14-25, 2014, with 23 students, who had completed the semester-long spring course, with the travel portion serving as the capstone experience.  Our travel took us to Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.   After returning from the abroad portion of the trip, the students were required to submit a final paper that weaved course content into their experiences abroad.  We wanted students to experience first-hand how these former Communist countries were evolving under democracy.

Tell us more about that trip.
It was very important to us that the experiences we had in the former Soviet Union were authentic.  Our anchor city was Budapest, where we visited Terror Haza (House of Terror), which was the former headquarters of the dreaded secret police now transformed into a museum. The exhibits focused on crimes and atrocities committed by Hungary’s fascist and Stalinist regimes.  Additionally, we visited Memento Park which is located outside of the city center, where socialist statues and art deemed unsuitable since the early ‘90s are united for display.  Another highlight of our trip was an inside tour of the Hungarian Parliament and St. Stephen’s Basilica.    HTP was even able to incorporate into our itinerary a Segway tour of Budapest, which the students thoroughly enjoyed. 

While in Bratislava, Slovakia, we were able to spend the day with a member of Slovak parliament and receive a special inside tour of the home of the highest legislative body of the Slovak Republic
In Krakow, Poland, we wanted our students to experience a centrally-planned Social district.  With this goal in mind,  HTP arranged for a tour of the model Communist city, Nowa Huta.  Students toured the area and the steelworks in genuine Trabant automobiles to get a real sense of life in Central Europe in the second half of the 20th century.  The tour guides explained to students how this area became one of the centers of revolution and resistance within Poland. Students truly got a true taste of Poland during the 1970s on this tour when they visited an unchanged Communist apartment where they watched a Soviet propaganda movie and had an optional opportunity to try a shot of vodka. It definitely was authentic!

With your passion for Central Europe, how did you end up in France and Italy on your next trip?
That travel program, “The Nutritional Biochemistry of the Mediterranean Diet,” was the result of another partnership between me and a faculty colleague and friend, Dr. Nick GrossoehmeHe had never taken students abroad before, but was willing and eager to do so.  In order to make the class content come alive abroad, we decided to go to France and Italy and see how the food and the Mediterranean lifestyle affected nutrition and health.  It was a great way to link science to history and culture.  Students got to experience the traditional way to make cheese, balsamic vinegar, pasta, and wine.

And you are returning to study The Mediterranean Diet in 2016, correct?
That’s correct.  This time, the course includes Dr. Wanda Koszewski, Department Chair of the Human Nutrition department.  She is incorporating a foods lab into the course this semester.  Students are actually preparing Mediterranean meals during the lab which they get to eat in class, which is the perfect preparation for our experiences abroad.

How do you recruit your students?
As with everything else, it all begins with the partnership with the professor.  We deliberately link travel programs with General Education courses, so the maximum number of students can participate if they choose to.  Because the travel programs are integrated into the coursework, the cost gets included on their tuition, which makes it easier to utilize loan and scholarships or set up payment plans.

As for individual recruitment, HTP creates posters about the travel programs and I display them around campusI write articles to be included in the parent and family newsletter.  We also let students know that they can earn half of their mandatory Cultural Event credits by participating in the travel programs.  We send out student and faculty emails to market the class also, especially around advising time.  Also, we participate in the Study Abroad Fair, hosted by our campus International Center.

Since so much of recruitment comes from word-of-mouth, I make sure to create a buzz about these travel programs far in advance.  The professors who design the courses reach out to students, as do I.  While our students are overseas, I assign at least one or two students per day to create social media posts about our adventures, including photos.  These photos prove useful, as we can collect them all on a Facebook page and students who are considering traveling can check them out on their own time.

What do find to be the most rewarding about creating a travel program?
There are many things that I love about travel programs.  I love the connections that have been made, across disciplines and across continents, in the service of putting together a travel program.  I love that every new program brings new experiences.  And I also value having the opportunity to share the world with students, some of whom have never left the United States or the southeast for that matter.  I also learn a lot from the students who are a part of each trip and develop close connections with them which continue long after the class concludes.

What advice would you give to a teacher, faculty member or administrator considering their first travel program?
You don’t have to do it all yourself!  Our travel programs are a success because I collaborate with other faculty members, as well as a top-notch company like HTP.  Since I have a full-time job, the HTP partnership is essential.  Working with a company like HTP means that you can focus on what you’re good at, while Steve and his team take care of the logistics and get you where you need to go.  I really appreciate that they can coordinate the hotels and flights, while I research options for our class visits. They are full of great ideas and the expertise to make the trip a reality.

Do you have an idea for a future study abroad trip?
Of course, I am already collaborating with a faculty member in the College of Visual and Performing Arts to develop a course focusing on the art of Central Europe, with plans to take students to Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic.  I look forward to building this trip for Spring 2018, in partnership with Steve and his Hart Travel team!