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Voyage of discovery

Service-learning scholarship broadens minds and horizons with study-abroad assistance

By Brelyn Powell

It was only after she’d returned from a monthlong service-learning trip to Córdoba, Spain, in summer 2014 that Arielle Preston (B.S.’15/H&S) realized how greatly her experience abroad had influenced her academic and professional ambitions. 

During the trip, Preston and her peers participated in service projects in Córdoba’s immigrant communities.

“The projects we were involved in inspired me to pursue opportuni­ties where I’m pushed to be bilingual and can help immigrants enter­ing the United States,” says Preston, who earned a degree in biology. She is now considering attending medical school in an area where she can continue to work with Spanish-speaking populations.

This influential travel opportunity would not have been possible for Preston without the financial support she received from the Randi Buerlein Scholarship for Service-Learning Education Abroad.

The Buerlein Scholarship is awarded to students of any discipline who meet VCU’s criteria to study abroad and who have demonstrated a dedication to community engagement through past participation in a service-learning course or other significant community service while at VCU. The scholarship is housed in the Global Education Office, and deserving students are selected in collaboration with the Ser­vice-Learning Program in the Division of Community Engagement.

The endowed scholarship was established in 2013 with a gift from Douglas Buerlein to celebrate the retirement of his wife, Randi Buerlein (M.S.W.’75/SW), a former faculty member. During her tenure at VCU, Buerlein had held several faculty positions in the School of Social Work, including interim director of field education and director of student services. She was passionate about providing international learning opportunities for students and had directed education-abroad programs to the Dominican Republic and Ghana.

Randi Buerlein knows that although these experiences provide students with invaluable experience, they are costly.

“It’s not just travel expenses but the related costs, like passports and immunizations,” Buerlein explains. “All of those things add up, so I’m glad [this scholarship] helps students afford these experiences.”

 

FORMATIVE EXPERIENCE

The study-abroad programs in the School of Social Work that were once led by Buerlein were formative for many students. A number of them have chosen to go back to the same destinations on their own, in some cases staying as long as six months to immerse themselves in the cultural experience and to serve others.

“It’s been exciting to see some of the ripple effects that a two-week trip can have,” Buerlein says.

Kristin Lennox (B.S.W.’11/SW; M.S.W.’16/SW) can attest to the influence of Buerlein’s supportive leadership on her students. Lennox participated in one of Buerlein’s study-abroad programs and traveled to the Dominican Republic early in her undergraduate education.

“I hadn’t taken any upper-level social work classes yet and was hes­itant about what I could bring to the trip,” Lennox says. “Randi really encouraged me to go forward with it, so I did.”

This past June, Lennox returned to the Dominican Republic, but this time, she was a co-leader of the study-abroad trip.

Stephanie Tignor, director of education abroad for the Global Ed­ucation Office, notes that after studying abroad, students often return to VCU with a new enthusiasm for their studies, a passion for service and a focus on how they can continue their experience in the future.

“The intercultural experiences students gain through study abroad have a lasting effect that will influence their personal and professional futures,” Tignor says. “We hope students are inspired and motivated to share their experiences with others, including their faculty here at VCU, other students, community members and beyond.”

Since Preston received the award in 2014, the Buerlein Scholarship has been awarded to two additional students, Marwa Eltaib in 2015 and Lily Jia in 2016.

Jia, a second-year graduate student in the School of Pharmacy, used the award this summer to travel to Honduras to participate in VCU’s Humanitarian Outreach Medical Brigade Relief Effort. Jia also works part-time as a pharmacy technician.

“It would have been challenging to balance school while adding extra work hours to save up for the HOMBRE trip,” she says. “I’m really appreciative of the scholarship for helping me go.”

Fourth-year sociology student Eltaib studied in South Africa in summer 2015 thanks to the scholarship. “I’m always so focused on my role as a student, and that trip reminded me of all the things that I care about other than just succeeding in my schoolwork,” Eltaib says. “My study-abroad experience in South Africa brought me back to a part of myself that I had not channeled in so long.”

 

To learn more about the Randi Buerlein Scholarship for Service-Learning Education Abroad, contact Chad Krouse, senior director of development for regional giving, at (804) 828-2346 or cmkrouse@vcu.edu.