Educate U.S., Engage U.S. celebrate second year of journeys to North Dakota, Colorado

Kristen Koehler, Gretta Ward and Hall Keene

Sometimes the second time around is just as sweet as the first.

May 2019 saw the return of Educate U.S. in North Dakota and Engage U.S. in Colorado and Nebraska; both new options of the NIU College of Education programs debuted in 2018.

But the impact on two new groups of travelers proved just as strong as the year before.

Educate U.S. in North Dakota takes place at the Mandaree School District, located within the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Nearly all of Mandaree’s fewer than 200 students come from Native American tribes as do some of the two dozen teachers. One building serves the entire K-12 district, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Indian Education of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education’s Engage U.S. trip, meanwhile, visits the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and the U.S. Air Force Academy’s athletic center nearby with a stop at the Nebraska Athletic Performance Laboratory at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Students on the westward journey tour the world-class facilities, learn how the organizations operate and attend presentations given by professionals working in athletic training, exercise science and sports medicine.

Kristen Koehler, a senior Elementary Education major, made the Educate U.S. trip Hall Keene, an Elementary Education major, and Special Education major Gretta Ward.

Kristen Koehler
Kristen Koehler

“I live on a farm in southern DeKalb County, and I am passionate about rural education, so that combination was a perfect fit,” says Koehler, a Waterman resident and NIU Forward, Together Forward scholar. “My peers who went on the trip with me said, ‘Kristen, you were meant to be on this trip. You live off the land. You recognize the animals, the foliage and everything around you.’ ”

The “jam-packed” week showed her and the other Huskies what it’s like to teach in a K-12 building while also providing a glimpse of a place where life is quite unlike that of Chicagoland.

One obvious difference: the location. Mandaree is a three-hour drive from the closest airport in Bismarck.

“It was similar to Waterman in some ways, such as smaller class sizes, which really does develop a sense of community. That was familiar to me. The big difference is that they really are in the middle of nowhere,” Koehler says.

“You think about going to Houston – that’s a great idea of what an urban school district is, even if it’s different than what Chicago is, what Los Angeles is, what New York is – but there’s nothing like being on a reservation in North Dakota.”

Within the Mandaree school building, she says, “we got a little dose of all the different grade levels, and how the teachers just band together to help each other out.”

Activities that week included field trips with fourth- through eighth-graders to nearby historical sites, during which the children and their visitors from Illinois learned about tribal sagas.

“The students were ancestors of these exact tribe, and we were able to stand on the ground where there are still depressions in the earth. It’s like stepping into history,” Koehler says. “You can read about history all you want, but to experience it like this was mind-blowing.”

May’s travelers also saw something their predecessors did not in 2018.

“There actually was a groundbreaking ceremony for a new school that’s going to be built, which was probably one of our greatest experiences while we were there,” Koehler says. “To see the mix of traditional values with modern progress, and how they recognize and put such a value on their children for the future of their culture, was truly moving. I was just grateful to experience that.”

Koehler remains appreciative for the entire journey, especially the inspiration she took for her future students.

“The whole way home, the only thing I could think of was creating lesson plans on how I can hopefully capture the history I experienced, the pride of this culture, the sense of community and how it’s not only important to learn about other cultures but to be involved in them. Nothing can substitute for being there,” she says. “I want my students to be able to take a walk in a forest preserve – or anywhere – and be able to recognize trees and leaves.”

For Randi Reis, a senior Kinesiology major from Rockford, the Engage U.S. trip out west helped her to recognize something about the amazing careers that await her and her fellow Huskies.

“We took the time to talk and network with these professionals in our field, which was awesome,” Reis says. “They expressed to us what to expect, and to never give up on the field, even though it is very competitive. It does take time, but as long as you’re willing to reach out and to put yourself out there, you’ll be successful.”

As someone who has returned to college after a break, she appreciated the look at the real-world applications of her education and the new contacts who can help her someday soon.

Allie Halverson and Kayla Emory
Allie Halverson and Kayla Emory

“My intended path right now is physical therapy. I would love to get to the point of working with quadriplegics or people who are impaired to help them walk again,” she says. “These professionals said they would be willing to help us as much as possible. They were very open, and made it clear that if we had any questions, to email them or call them.”

Reis enjoyed hearing presentations on coaching and nutrition, and chatting with the director of women’s basketball for the Olympics and with a local representative from the U.S. Tennis Association.

In Nebraska, she enjoyed the guided tour given by Director Chris Bach that explored the bioscience laboratories and looked at the cutting-edge equipment that includes a motion-analysis system.

Of course, the trip to the foot of the Rocky Mountains provided plenty of breathtaking vistas in which to hike and a sweet view of Pikes Peak.

“I’ve never been to Colorado Springs, so it was really nice to experience that,” she says. “That I got to learn on top of that was the best of both worlds.”

Joining Reis on the trip were faculty members Brandon Male and Peter Chomentowski, graduate assistant Kayla Emory and fellow students Rebecca Backeberg, Emma Baumert, Brad Carter, Holly Flentge, Allie Halverson, Ainsley Horras, Jack Littner, Scott Patterson, Kristopher Smith and Devon Shaw.

Engage U.S. travelers
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