FARMINGTON – It’s one thing to study a place in a classroom, but quite another to actually be there to experience it.
As part of a pilot study abroad program at University of Maine at Farmington, eight students and four faculty members recently stayed for two days in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, to learn as much as they could about a town rebuilding itself after the 2013 trail derailment explosion and fires that killed 47 people and destroyed much of the downtown area. Nearly a third of the total number of residents living in town were displaced after their homes were destroyed by fire.
While there, UMF students interviewed public officials, civic leaders and business people, all of whom have been working to rebuild the city. They also toured the damaged city and visited the public library that was recently rebuilt.
On the night the train derailment on July 6, 2013, more than 30 firefighters from Franklin County responded to the massive fires and, in the aftermath, there was a flood of support for Lac-Mégantic’s residents. Farmington, the sister city of Lac-Mégantic since 1991, held several fund raisers, as did other Franklin County towns, and there was an exchange of visits by town officials from both sides of the border.
The Farmington Public Library, along with libraries across the state of Maine, raised funds to help rebuild Bibliotheque de Lac-Mégantic. The town’s library bordered the train tracks and was one of the many buildings leveled by the explosions in the downtown area. The library’s entire collection, estimated at 60,000 items, was lost with the exception of those books currently checked out by patrons. The popular library served 3,000 community members each month. Recently, a newly rebuilt public library reopened.
UMF students and faculty returned from Lac-Mégantic bringing gifts of thanks from one library to another. Last week, they presented Farmington’s library director Maurie Stockford with a booklet of Lac-Mégantic’s rebuilding efforts and a friendship pin. Both are on display at the library.
Getting the opportunity to meet with the various residents connected to Lac-Mégantic, including the library director and then bringing back mementos was a meaningful experience for both the traveling students and faculty, said Linda Beck, a UMF political science professor and director of UMF International and Global Studies Program.
“It reinforced the relationship with Lac-Mégantic,” Beck said of the trip. “We saw some really powerful images.” Included in those images were the ongoing efforts to rebuild the town, but also photographs of the disaster and the protest demonstrations advocating for better rail safety.
As part of its new strategic plan, UMF recently joined the Institute of International Education’s Generation Study Abroad initiative that helps give more U.S. students international experience through study abroad programs. UMF is the only Maine institution included in the IIE’s coalition of 450 partners.
Launched earlier this year, the Generation Study Abroad organization is working to increase study abroad participation by bringing employers, governments, associations and others together towards finding new ways to extend opportunities and resources for the nation’s college students.
In keeping with the IIE Generation Study Abroad goal of doubling the number of U.S. students studying abroad by the end of the decade, UMF announced it is pledging to double the number of its students studying abroad by 2020 with a projected goal of having 10 percent of its student body participate in some type of international educational experience by that year.
“Studying abroad helps students learn new skills, develop new strengths and apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to the real world,” said Kathryn A. Foster, UMF president. “The experience plays a critical role in a student’s education and enhances their self-confidence and independence—skills that can really set them apart in today’s job market.”
To help increase student interest in studying abroad, the new initiative includes “Global Perspectives,” a two-day excursion program designed to make international education more accessible to fit student’s busy schedules and limited budgets. The recent trip to Lac-Mégantic served as the pilot for the new program.
In the planning stages are continued travel to Quebec, other parts of Atlantic Canada and global cities in the U.S. that will help students experience the benefits of longer-term studying abroad experiences. New ways of disseminating information on the value of international experiences and engaging study abroad alumni to advocate for their importance and relevance will also be pursued by UMF. Additional funding for student scholarships is in the planning stage.
UMF currently offers semester-long formal exchange programs in France, England, Argentina, China and throughout the U.S. and Canada through the National Student Exchange program. UMF also offers travel courses during winter and May terms.
Generation Study Abroad partners to date include 298 colleges and universities of all sizes and types across the country and around the world, as well as 13 governments, 16 education associations, 67 international partners, and 56 study abroad, K-12, and social network organizations who have committed to specific goals to increase the number of U.S. students studying abroad.