I originally decided not to apply for the Wisconsin Experience Bus Trip, and I’m so glad I changed my mind.I became one of 35 fortunate “emerging student leaders” selected to participate in a five-day, intensive bus tour of Wisconsin, coordinated by the WUD Alt Breaks Committee. We visited vital communities and industry leaders with the intention of applying our shared experience to action on campus that better reflects the Wisconsin Idea.
Being a student at UW-Madison can feel like searching for a pass through mountains so high their peaks are hidden in clouds. Greatness surrounds you from all angles and in all forms, and for me it has often felt like my only choices in trying to keep up are to climb blindly and endlessly, or fall.
It was due to this feeling that I initially decided the bus trip wasn’t for me. When I received emails with its mention, I let them disappear unread into the abyss of my inbox. I did not identify as an emerging student leader, as I do not directly lead anything or feel my current work makes a notable difference in campus life. I didn’t expect much of anything when I finally submitted my application, but my acceptance definitely lifted my spirits in the thick of midterm exams.
Dean of Students Lori Berquam gave a few remarks at our pre-trip meeting on how we would be representatives of the university itself to essential communities across Wisconsin, and how important it was that we not only conduct ourselves accordingly, but also make use of this rare opportunity. Upon hearing from the other students, who touted impressive leadership in everything from student government to the PEOPLE program to the student farm, I wondered what role I would play in the experience.From the send-off itself, however, I was struck with how genuinely kind, supportive and passionate my fellow trip participants (hereafter WEBTers) were, as well as how misguided my own idea of leadership was. None of the WEBTers cared much who had what role in their respective organizations as long as they were interested in expanding the scope of their work.
The first question asked of me by almost everyone in the days since our return is, “what was the best part?” I don’t know if I have ever had such difficulty answering that question, and my answer changes every time.
I have said that speaking to high school seniors at the Hapa-Hmong American Peace Academy about the ‘college experience’ was one of the highlights. The school was so well-run and the students and faculty so friendly that I instantly felt at ease.
We ended one of our longer days of travel with the stories of Frank, the owner of a Germanic bed-and-breakfast in Cleveland, and set out with the sunrise the next day to tour a huge dairy where we not only witnessed the birth of a calf, but also learned about the incredible commitment of its owners to environmental sustainability and community collaboration.
Our visit to the Lac du Flambeau Reservation left me aware of the great privilege I carry, and with a great deal of respect and admiration for the reservation leaders we met who are working everyday to improve their communities in response to centuries of damage in the form of ethnic cleansing and forced assimilation. In one striking example, a former male dormitory of the boarding school on the reservation wherein young American Indians were taught English and Euro-American customs was restored and converted by community leaders into a cultural and historic center re-establishing their narrative.
Even fighting brambles and summer heat in the woods of Faville Grove Wildlife Sanctuary with the other WEBTers on our first day is a memory with a special place in my heart.
Equally as memorable to me, of course, will be how quickly it felt like we all got to know each other through these unusual and occasionally challenging experiences. Whether we were taking a break from gardening to cheer on a worm-eating showdown, lounging by Lake Minocqua while burritoed in blankets against the chilly night, molding thrones out of cottonseed, or daring each other to eat the year-old cranberries in the old growth of the bog we visited, I genuinely felt like I got to know most of my fellow WEBTers better in five days than I have most people at UW-Madison in two years.
In between the goofing off (which I like to think we kept to a minimum) I had invaluable conversations with so many of the WEBTers that give me hope for the work we’ll be able to do this coming year on campus.I speak as sincerely as possible in admitting that spending just five days with so many other remarkable and supportive students at this university, and visiting with so many different forms of community and industry leadership, became the wake-up call I needed to understand leadership is not something I need to be given to make a difference for people on this campus and beyond. I have already begun to talk with some of the other WEBTers about the work we can do together in the next year.
We as mere students are surrounded by greatness at this university and on our own, it can be difficult to make big-picture changes. In my experience, the Wisconsin Experience Bus Trip provided an ideal environment to meet and brainstorm with students just as passionate as myself to create safe spaces on campus and improve our community outreach.
Honestly, I can’t wait to start working.