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KU professor transforms students, sparks travel by leading a record 51 study abroad programs

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

KU English Professor Mary Klayder has just three rules for the students who travel with her study abroad programs:

Rule #1: Have a good time.

Rule #2: Let her have a good time

Rule #3: Don’t let Rule #1 interfere with Rule #2

Those guidelines have paved the way for transformative experiences among the more than 1,100 students who have studied abroad with Klayder during KU’s winter, spring and summer breaks.

Over the summer, Klayder led her 51st study abroad program as she took students on a month-long journey through Great Britain. For that record-breaking accomplishment in international education, KU International Affairs and Study Abroad & Global Engagement honored Klayder at a reception in October. Klayder is the associate director of undergraduate studies and University Honors lecturer in the Department of English and a Faculty Fellow for the University Honors Program.

“While we have many wonderful faculty who are dedicated to providing international education opportunities to our students, no one at KU - and quite possibly across the United States - comes close to matching Mary’s achievements in this area,” said Angela Perryman, director of Study Abroad & Global Engagement.

Ten years after participating in Klayder’s programs, Mason Heilman, a 2011 graduate in political science and secondary education, can still recite the rules Klayder established. But, it was her Rule #2 (let her have a good time) that shaped his outlook on traveling, which included periods of studying and living abroad.

“She taught me that traveling is meant to be an exploration,” Heilman said. “I watched as she explored with wide-eyed enthusiasm while encouraging us to do the same. She gave me the courage and wonder to live abroad, and I can only hope I am someday able to pay that sense of excitement forward.”

Traveling for nearly two months of the year, Klayder leads students on three study abroad programs at KU: a two-week program to Costa Rica during winter break, a 10-day program in London over spring break and a month-long program in Great Britain in June.

Klayder designs the programs as appetizers, providing students with the skills and desire to travel independently and live abroad for longer periods. After traveling with Klayder, many of her students go on to study aboard for a semester or a year, or apply for international graduate fellowships.

“I try to make them confidence builders,” Klayder said of the programs. “The students get comfortable enough that they feel like they can do it on their own.”

To help ensure that everyone has a good time, Klayder established the three ground rules. She also instituted the mantra “it’ll be fine,” which is now tattooed across the inside of her wrist, which she’ll hold up to nervous and anxious students when problems arise abroad as a reminder to stay calm.

For Klayder each trip is a different experience as a new cohort of students sees the countries with fresh eyes.

“Study abroad is so transformative,” Klayder said. “It’s just exciting to see the students experience it, to talk to them about it and to see the growth.”

Klayder led her first study abroad trip as part of the British Summer Institute (BSI) in 1990, but didn’t start regularly leading the program until 2001. Spending two weeks in London before heading north to the Scottish Highlands, the BSI has evolved over the years into what Klayder likes to call her “greatest hits,” a combination of literary sites, museums, palaces and stately country homes. Combining art, literature, history and culture, the students read “Mrs. Dalloway” in London, “Wuthering Heights” in Yorkshire and “Kidnapped” in the Scottish Highlands. While historic sites are an important part of the program, Klayder also encourages students to connect with the people wherever they travel.

“A lot of times people travel and look at the famous sties, but they don’t look at the now. I feel like the students get a lot out of traveling by talking to people about what’s happening now, especially these past few years in London and Scotland,” Klayder said.

During her first BSI trip, Klayder noticed how closely students bonded and how excitement grew during their travels. To capture those emotions upon their return home, Klayder wanted to design a course that would arc across a semester and build-in an opportunity for students to reflect following the trip.

From those ideas the London Review was created in 1998. The program is a semester-long course, with students planning their trip to London before they visit the city for 10 days over spring break. In London, students do activities as a group, but also have an opportunity to explore the city on their own. Over breakfasts in the mornings and in the hotel’s lounge in the afternoons, Klayder checks in with students to hear about their adventures. When the students come back to KU, they finish the semester by creating the publication “The London Review” to chronicle their trip.

In 2006, Klayder began taking students to Costa Rica for two weeks during winter break. Structured around the idea of travel writing as a way to experience a country, the program examines Costa Rica’s environmental and socio-cultural elements. With San Jose as the starting point, the group explores the country’s cloud forests, volcanoes and beaches.

Heilman’s trip to Costa Rica with Klayder’s program was only his second time outside the United States. He later participated in the London Review and met-up with the BSI program for a weekend in London.  Heilman said Klayder’s programs gave him the confidence to do an entire semester abroad in Spain. Heilman, who now lives in Boston and works for the Massachusetts state legislature, lived abroad and continues to travel incessantly, a universal trait among the classmates in his programs.

“It was such a big part of my experience at KU and probably one of my most transformative,” Heilman said. 

That same sentiment was echoed over and over in the words of the many alumni who submitted their reflections on the personal, academic and professional impact of their study abroad experiences with Klayder.

“Dr. Klayder is a stellar example of the power of a single individual to create far-reaching change in individuals and institutions. The impact of her work extends far beyond the more than 1,100 students who have studied abroad with her to the lives of those with whom they interact, the organizations in which they work, and the communities in which they live and serve,” Perryman said.

Images submitted by Mary Klayder and show students traveling in Costa Rica, Scotland and Costa Rica

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