Author: Ros MacKenzie

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Thursday, March 20th, 2008 at 1:40 am
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Places

Wisconsin in Scotland – part of Dalkeith that is – for now – American

Dalkeith Palace is breathtaking in its classical magnificence. It has style, it has grandeur, it is the epitome of aristocratic living. Built during the early eighteenth century, the Palace had been commissioned by Anne, the first Duchess of Buccleuch to occupy the site of an earlier twelfth century palace. It is a magnificent example of late William and Mary architecture and is renowned for its fine oak panelling and splendid marble staircase.

So why is the dress code being worn these days on the marble staircase more trainers and sweatshirts, rather than ball gown and black tie? And what is the significance of the rather mysterious “Wisconsin in Scotland” plaque to be found on the imposing front door?

Wisconsin students in ScotlandThe answer is youth – American youth. Over 80 of them in fact, all from universities in Wisconsin – “The Badger State”, as this Midwestern state is sometimes known.

These young Americans are beavering away in Dalkeith as a result of a remarkable initiative that for the last 20 years has offered the students of 5 affiliated universities in western Winsconsin the chance to come to Scotland to live and study. Just as foreign language students benefit from spending some time in the country of their field of study, so young Americans “divided by a common language” from the Old Country gain a whole new perspective when given the chance to visit these ancient shores

It all started in the mid eighties when a consortium of Winsconsin universities started looking for premises somewhere in Britain that could accommodate groups coming over on cultural study visits. It so happened at that time that Dalkeith Palace became available for lease from the Buccleuch Estates. A poster of Dalkeith Palace found its way to Winsconsin, and the venue was fully approved as being highly suitable. The “Winsconsin in Scotland Program” had a home, and so began in 1986 a cultural experience that more than 3,000 students have enjoyed.

Each year 86 students and 3-5 faculty members from the five universities which comprise the consortium arrive in Dalkeith to participate in the experience. Students can come for one semester, the full academic year, or a 6 week summer school. It goes without saying that there is keen competition among the faculty members to be chosen to come over to teach on the program.

First time away from home

There are also adjunct faculty members from Edinburgh University who input courses on British History, British Civilisation, and the British Novel. According to the Program’s Director, Mary Flynn, many of the students come from small communities, and their parents and families may never have travelled abroad. They themselves may be the first generation in their family to attend college and they are probably experiencing their first trip away from the vast open spaces of home. As 20year-old Business Finance student Julie Bouska from UW Eau Claire comments, “It’s kind of neat to live in a castle, ‘cos America isn’t even old enough to have one.”

The students live on campus, but there is a host family scheme whereby students can be assigned to a family who invite them for meals and outings to give them a broader perspective of life in Scotland. This is a vital part of the whole experience, and many good lasting friendships develop between students and hosts. Megan Olson (20), a History Major student from UW River Falls says of her host family, “It has lots of kids, and it’s fun to see a real Scottish family eat together and play together. They seem more family centred than us. It’s strange to see.”

The students themselves are so delightful and enthusiastic that it is no surprise to learn that Scottish hosts have warmed to their young guests and been invited to their graduations and weddings and home towns for visits. The hosts are also invited to receptions and parties at the Palace while their students are there, and come to know a lot more about Winsconsin than they ever knew before. It is also not unusual for members of the students’ families to come over to visit while the students are in residence, thus extending the cultural benefits even further.

Work Experience too
Another possibility that can be enjoyed are internships, or work experience opportunities. Students can be found in schools, hospitals, vets, offices, garden centres – anywhere that is willing to provide a worthwhile experience for the course. Mary and her Associate Director Tim Dohmen see this expanding year by year.

“It just gets better and better. Notes are left from one co-ordinator to another, and the range of placements just grows and grows.”

There are lectures and guest speakers and group discussions and political debate. Scottish language, arts, food, literature, history, geography and current events are all on the curriculum. Each semester there are several “house trips” where the whole college goes off to see some venue of interest.

So how do the students themselves feel about the whole experience? Joseph Stensland (24) from the University of Superior Liberal Arts College, Winsconsin, says, “My eyes have really been opened to an international perspective.”

Friendly people

Erica Moats (21) from River Falls finds that, “People are friendlier and more interesting to talk to than at home. There’s more to talk about.” – a feeling echoed by Mary Flynn, who also commented on how friendly the community in Dalkeith is towards the students.

Wisconsin's Duncan Meyer“Everyone speaks to our students in town. Coming from the United States, they find that remarkable!”

The final word should maybe go to Dustin Mayer, a tall, good-looking 21 year-old from River Falls, resplendent on a sunny spring morning in his Saltire kilt. “It’s a breezy and free feeling!” – true of the kilt and true of the Winsconsin Program.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Winsconsin Program or being a host family for a student, you can contact Mary Flynn, the Resident Director, at 0131 663 5632, E-mail: weedrmary@yahoo.co.uk

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