NORFOLK, Neb. -- After COVID-19 grounded international travel plans for most U.S. colleges and universities, Northeast Community College successfully completed not one – but two – international experiences, taking students to the United Kingdom and Ireland in late spring.

Travel to the United Kingdom was led by agriculture instructors Brandon Keller and Sarah Sellin, and the travel to Ireland, which was part of a consortium with other Nebraska community colleges, was led by Mary O’Boyle, coordinator of the education program (Elementary, Secondary, Paraprofessional and Substitute) and Diversity, French and Psychology instructor at Northeast.

Seven Northeast students from the College’s Ag program took a 10-day comprehensive look at crop and livestock productions in Scotland and England. Students were able to compare U.S. agriculture practices with similar practices overseas.

Students visited the Easter Howgate Farm, operated by Scotland’s Rural College; toured a Highland Wagyu beef facility; discussed the future development of food production with faculty from Harper-Adams University in Newport, England; and took in cultural sites such as Edinburgh Castle; the Beatles’ Museum in Liverpool; and a West End theatre production in London.

Sellin said she saw first-hand the benefits of an international experience for her students.

“Watching the students grow from the first day to the last day of the trip was absolutely the best part of the trip,” Sellin said. “I am not sure if they recognized that they grew in global awareness as well as confidence, but as an instructor, that part of the trip was amazing.”

Students traveling as part of the Northeast agriculture department included Henry Beel, Ainsworth; Levi Bode, Burwell; Grant Fischer, Wenzel; Alexandra Hinze, Columbus; Jeremy Kooima, Rock Valley, Iowa; Isaac Noyd, Stromsburg; and Julia Polt, Pierce.

Topics that students discussed in lectures at Northeast became reality for them. One particular topic came into full focus.

“We talk quite a bit about carbon sequestration," Sellin said. "However, the United Kingdom is much more advanced in this area, and the students were able to see some of the agricultural practices being put into place in operations. Another example was the food chain/supply in the world. The UK had much fresher, cheaper produce. Students learned at a small farmer’s market in Leicester that one reason for this was because of the location of Spain and Poland to the UK instead of the US.”

By visiting other operations in the UK, students in Northeast’s animal science program were made aware that operators around the world battle different issues within their herd.

“While here in northeast Nebraska we battle with pink eye, in the UK, operators are not too concerned with it because there are less issues with dust and flies," Selling said. "Tracking of farm products within the UK was also much more advanced compared to the US. Students were able ‘to see into the future’ of where some agriculture commodities might be headed in the US.”

Sellin said international travel, such as the trip to England, is incredibly important for Northeast students to learn about global perspectives in agriculture.

“Students are able to see that Ag is really connected worldwide, even though ag might have different practices due to the environment," Sellin said. "I hope these students speak to other students about how important this trip was in regards to their understanding of not only agriculture but the world.”

Keller said although the students live thousands of miles away, the trip highlighted what both countries have in common.

“The agriculture industry is becoming increasingly globally connected every year and providing students the opportunity to immerse themselves in the agricultural industry abroad allows an invaluable learning experience that cannot be replicated in the classroom,” Keller said. “The value of faculty-led, study abroad programs goes far beyond the travel experience, it also allows the students to develop independence, cultural awareness, and appreciation of the importance of cross-international relations.

Shortly after the agriculture students returned to the U.S., O’Boyle, along with four additional faculty leaders from other Nebraska community colleges, departed for ten days in Ireland with 23 students from Northeast, Central, Southeast, Mid-Plains, and Western Nebraska community colleges. The Ireland travel experience was part of a pilot project by the Nebraska Community College Global Leadership Task Force. The consortium was formed to provide opportunities for students and faculty from all the participating community colleges to engage in joint global activities. Students participated as part of the Institute of Study-Abroad Ireland where they earned college credit and participated in group lectures and projects that coincided with experiencing the sights first-hand.

O’Boyle said the Study Abroad program at the Institute in Bundoran, County Donegal, Ireland, was an overwhelming success on numerous levels. She said it was designed to help students and faculty develop their critical and comparative thinking skills. The course modules assisted the travelers to develop cultural competency and the ability to articulate their perspectives on some of the major cultural themes of current times.

“This is perhaps the most impressive travel-learning experience with which I have had the privilege of being involved,” O'Boyle said. “The Institute for Study Abroad Ireland provided magnificent experiences for students and faculty alike. I cannot speak highly enough of this opportunity and do hope the Nebraska Community College Global Leadership Task Force continues to work with ISAI in order to provide our students with additional quality learning experiences.”

O’Boyle, originally from Ballymena, County Antrim, in the North of Ireland, said Ireland's multifaceted history includes narratives of colonization, displacement, emigration, civil rights movements, conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and the challenge of building better in the 21st century.

“All of these events provided us with excellent material for comparative and critical thinking about ourselves, our community, and our past, present, and future,” O'Boyle said.

Each of the modules in the course was based on core values of empathy, cultural awareness, social justice, and environmental responsibility. Students and faculty engaged with each of the classes through creative assignments that developed intercultural skills and global experiences.

O’Boyle said she witnessed students gain confidence in embracing new challenges, developed increased sensitivity toward themselves and others, acquired an understanding of Irish history and culture dating back more than 5,000 years with the ability to relate it to US history as well as current world events, and had the opportunity to explore some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. There was another important highlight – the development of new friendships among the students and faculty from across Nebraska, Colorado and North Carolina.

“These are invaluable tools to take with us on our future or current career paths, but more importantly, they make us more informed and educated world citizens,” O’Boyle said.

Northeast student Dylan Olsen, Heartwell, joined the other students on the trip to Ireland.

Pam Saalfeld, director of Northeast’s Office for Global and Multicultural Engagement and a founding member of the Nebraska Community Colleges Global Leadership Taskforce, coordinated the travel arrangements among the five schools and their participating faculty and students. While she has organized numerous faculty-student travels in the past, this year’s travels had a unique set of concerns.

“When we put these two trips back on the books, we thought that COVID would be behind us by the time of travel,” Saalfeld said. “That proved not to be the case, so we had to monitor international policies on masks, COVID vaccines, boosters, and quarantines. It was an ever-changing landscape.”

Fortunately, none of the students or faculty from both trips tested positive for COVID, so they could return to the United States. However, airline travel became the bigger issue.

“Flights were canceled and rescheduled for both travel groups,” Saalfeld said. “We got them there and back, but not without some real effort on the part of our great faculty leaders.”

Both the agriculture students’ trip and the Ireland consortium trip were originally scheduled for May 2020.

“By March of that year, COVID hit, and all travel pretty much grounded us for two years,” Saalfeld said.