Global Scholars Program Shapes Life Trajectories

Seven students stand together in China

During her KU Global Scholars seminar course, Beth Fentress was asked to draw a segment of a tree trunk with rings, and in each ring to write an event that changed her life. The assignment was intended to have her think about patterns and decisions that led her to that moment and where she wanted to go from there. 

Fentress knew where she was going and that was China. Thanks to the Global Scholars Scholarship and financial support from Study Abroad & Global Engagement, she was able to leave the country for the first time. She spent the summer of her sophomore year in Beijing and the 2015-16 academic year in Nanjing. She credits her time in China for helping her to see different ways of living from those of her small Kansas hometown and to connect with many people in both English and Chinese.

“I can say simply and truthfully that the Global Scholars Program is now one of the rings in my tree. It was the starting point of many significant changes in my life,” said Fentress, who graduated in 2018 with degrees in Speech-Language-Hearing and East Asian Languages and Cultures.

Today, Fentress lives in Leshan, China, and teaches university-level English courses through the Peace Corps. Her days are busy facilitating English activities, eating spicy Leshan food, attending school events, and playing Mahjong with coworkers.

“My professional and personal life is the culmination of programs that encouraged me to ask the right questions, validate other people’s stories, learn from everyone, and live fully. This is the importance of globally focused, academic programs.”

In 2010, the then Office of International Programs, now International Affairs, created the Global Scholars Program with support from the Center for Global and International Studies and the Honors Program. Global Scholars is modeled after the long-running University Scholars Program, and like University Scholars, an interdisciplinary seminar serves as the foundation for the 15 sophomores selected as Global Scholars each year. The specially designed seminar course has focused on a different theme each year, including imperialism, memory, healthcare, dance, and biodiversity.

In addition to taking the seminar, Global Scholars conduct a faculty-mentored research project that they present their senior year at the Global Scholars Research Symposium. Project ideas often grow out of Scholars’ time abroad, which is supported in part by the Global Scholars Scholarship. For example, while studying abroad in Trier, Germany, Global Scholar Claire Zimmerman was inspired to create a new typeface. Global Scholar Sam Eastes studied abroad in Costa Rica and began researching the factors contributing to the migration of LGBT Refugees in Central America. The experience of living in another nation is an important part of the Global Scholars program. 

Matthew Dunn, a member of the 2015 cohort, took part in one of the more athletically strenuous seminars. Professor Michelle Heffner Hayes, chair of Theatre and Dance, led the seminar, “From the Social to the Global: Seeing the World through Flamenco and Latin Popular Dance.” The class combined methodologies from anthropology, sociology, women’s studies, queer studies, and critical dance studies to learn about flamenco, salsa and merengue in their different cultural contexts, and how identities are constructed and performed. Classes met in a dance studio and a lecture room to create a hybrid format of investigation.

“The seminar itself was not only the most fun course of my KU career, but it was also one of the most intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding,” Dunn said.  “Actually dancing salsa and flamenco in the studio gave me a greater appreciation for the role of music and dance in different cultures and inadvertently caused me to ‘come out of my shell,’ helping me become a more confident individual.”

After the seminar, Dunn started conducting research under the direction of Andrew Denning, associate professor in history, on the role the Belgian clandestine press played in supporting a national identity during the German occupation in World War I. Through his Global Scholars scholarship, Dunn conducted archival research in Belgium, which was central to his Global Scholars research project and his honors thesis in history.

Dunn says the Global Scholars program was easily one of his most beneficial experiences at KU. 

“Participating in Dr. Heffner-Hayes’ seminar and being able to complete original research as an undergraduate student were exceptionally beneficial to my intellectual development, and also made my resume stand out from other applicants during my job search,” said Dunn, who earned his B.A. in History and Co-Major in European Studies from KU in 2018. The Global Scholars scholarship was a critical piece in that puzzle.

Earlier this fall, the 2019 Global Scholars cohort was selected. It is made up of a strong and diverse group of scholars who will explore the historical development and contemporary dynamics of mobility in a global context in Professor Denning’s seminar course next spring. 

In addition to the seminar and research components, the program aims to provide every Scholar with a $1,000-$1,500 scholarship to study abroad. The scholarship is dependent on generous donations from alumni and friends. 

“The Global Scholars program seeks to deeply immerse scholars into the international context of their disciplines and through that experience further their sense of how their lives and careers will be intimately connected with those of others around the globe,” said Charles Bankart, Associate Vice Provost of International Affairs. “As society becomes increasingly intertwined and complex, universities like KU have a responsibility to ensure our students become empowered and responsibly engaged participants in the world around them. I can think of no better way to gain an appreciation for that than having an immersive experience abroad.”