Alumni Spotlight: Bryan Heijstek

Bryan Heijstek studied abroad with ISA in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Lima, Peru in 2012. He has since devoted his time to starting a micro-college named Thoreau College in rural Wisconsin. We reached out to him to learn more.

1. What is a “micro-college”? How did you get involved with creating Thoreau College?

The term “micro college” has been around for a long time, but recently has become more prevalent in conversations around higher education. A good article that introduces this growing trend can be found on the New York Times website titled, “The Anti-College is on the Rise”, by Molly Worthen. She uses the term, “micro-institutions”. The philosophy is centered on being an addition to the higher education paradigm, rather than a replacement. It’s a recognition that there has been something lost in our educational model and is missing from the catalog of options for students to consider when contemplating their future paths after high school.

The philosophy of the micro-college movement, as I see it, is that these are small colleges designed around the needs of their local environments. As such, this is a fluid term, and can only be defined broadly. Having said that, “micro-college” can be defined as a college of around 30 students and would likely not have any specialized schools or departments within the college or tenure for professors. It could also be defined as broad-based education that also focuses on the special needs of the community in which it lives.

My involvement with Thoreau College began with a 9-month residential program with five other participants, collectively called the Founding Fellows. The idea for the college was already being developed by a small group of educators, entrepreneurs, and visionaries. The Founding Fellow program was a way for them to run a trial program and simultaneously invite a group of young people interested in helping to develop the foundations of a micro-college. In the following year, I stayed on to become the Labor Coordinator, where I collaborated with several partners and designed the labor activities that our students engaged in during their 4.5 month semester in the fall of 2019. Interestingly, the work I did as a Founding Fellow also allowed me to take on a part-time teaching role at the local high school, where I later went on to teach math, chemistry, and astronomy on my own (never having taught these subjects before and lacking any formal education in teaching – this is part of the spirit of the high school and the college).

2. Has studying abroad influenced your current endeavors? If so, how?

Studying abroad, in addition to all of my other world travel, has provided a mold that defines and shapes my current endeavors. Before my study abroad experience, I was fairly lost in where I wanted to direct my lifelong work and studies. I was interested enough in my classes, but I didn’t have the energy behind my studies that comes to someone who has a clear “why?” or purpose in mind. When I returned from my study abroad program, I found an enlivened excitement that I brought with me to complete my degree in Biomedical Science and became more focused on where to direct my energy. In addition to gaining enough credits through study abroad to complete a second major in Spanish, I was determined to pursue a Master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. I had my “why” and I learned a lot along the way.

Apart from taking classes that I simply found to be more engaging in my last years of college, I think studying abroad also gave me a needed rest from the monotony of college. The experience of a foreign educational institution awoke my enthusiasm to finish out my degree. This might be comparable to a gap year program, that allows students the time and reflection necessary to make insightful decisions and observations around where they want their education to take them and where they want to take their questions.

Studying abroad also changed my perspective. I remember taking a picture of a boy dressed in traditional clothing in Cuzco, Peru. The boy saw me take his picture and promptly stuck out his hand, looking for a Sol, as was customary. I refused because I didn’t see why I needed to pay for a picture that I took. I was a tourist and felt like I had a right to take a picture of anything (or anyone) I wanted, not realizing that what I left behind was a continuing legacy of exploitation of indigenous people. I was taking without showing gratitude by leaving anything of value behind. I have since deleted the picture and continue to ponder the significance of this memory. What else do we ‘take’ when we travel to another place? This is a question that has followed me ever since this realization, and while I thought I was taking this boy’s photo, he was giving me this lesson. What did I leave for him? In our travels, what do we leave behind? Both in the place we travel to and in the sense of what we lose by not staying in one place, where we learn to know a place deeply and in an intimate way.

These questions followed me into my work with Thoreau College. I was surrounded by people who spoke of seven generations of ancestry in the same place. People who practiced caring for the land seven generations into the future. I became friends with people who knew the land so well, they didn’t just know the names of many of the flora and fauna, they also knew their character. In a society where the most fundamental questions we face are, “what will we do and where will we live?” the immersion of culture and isolation I experienced while studying and traveling abroad, along with the sense of place I gained through my work with Thoreau College, has led me to return home, again, with a newfound vision of what it means to make a home and live in the community I was raised.

3. What has studying abroad taught you that you carry into your current profession? Did you develop any transferable skills that you now use?

Studying abroad in Peru and Argentina exposed me to different regional accents and slang that helped broaden my skills in becoming bilingual in Spanish. I am currently working to become a Spanish Interpreter. I see this as a practical way to make some money doing something I enjoy, while continuing to explore my many curiosities, as I have moved on from thinking of Occupational Therapy as a career path. I also built on my cultural knowledge, which I value, as people continue to move and I learned how the lives of people around the world are tied to my own. It also gave me the confidence I needed to take a job teaching English in South Korea for a year. I don’t think I would have done that had I not studied abroad.

Studying abroad opened doors in my life that I am still discovering. It expanded my sense of adventure and my comfort in the rapidly changing and dynamic world we live in. It also gave me a context to explore who I am, as I found that “I” changed depending on where I went, and, most profoundly, when I returned home. Returning home was important to me, otherwise none of it mattered. My sense of “home” has changed over the years, but whatever it came to be, it was the only context in which I could know deeply what I brought back and what I left behind. I have returned home from “abroad”, once again. This time from a rural town in Southwest Wisconsin. And I am still learning what I take with me as I travel and what I will leave behind.

If you’re interested in exploring a semester or internship with Thoreau College, please visit Applications are live!

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