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Alex Bondar and her team, “the Batatas.”

Alex Bondar will be a junior at Western Michigan University in the fall of 2015 and currently works at the NMC Student Life Office. She earned her associate’s degree from NMC in general studies and hopes to receive a degree from Western in education with a focus in English.

I grew up in a small town near the thumb of Michigan – Armada, with a population of less than 2,000 people, mainly white and mainly Christian. My only experiences in life were from Armada: you know everyone you see every day, that any trip outside of town was a brand new adventure, and that the idea of traveling the world is an almost impossible feat. Never did I ever think I would move to Traverse City a year after I graduated. But, after my first year of community college and at 19 years old, I moved 4 hours north to the Cherry Capital.

Enter Student Life, the first job I got when I moved to TC. It was a great way to get to know people since many students enter our office every day. Across the hall is the International Services and Service Learning Office, where Jim Bensley works. Because of our free coffee, many more than just students entered our office. Jim was one of those people. I got to know him and what he does, and that’s when I first heard the word: Brazil.

“Brazil needs you!” Jim said one morning to me, completely out of the blue. I had thought he came in for some free coffee and to say hi. Apparently, that wasn’t the case (although, his mug was filled when he left.).

“Brazil?” I responded, confused. Why would Brazil need ME? I’ve never even given that place a thought… I was thinking as Jim was talking.

“Yes! They need you to teach English!”

NO. WAY. Surprise came over me as my major was, in fact, English teaching. I had never thought that I would have the chance to get into a classroom so young, and so early… and in Brazil! The program was called US-Brazil Connect, a way for community college students to study abroad in Brazil and teach English to high school students. Although, I was still wary. I knew that any travel costs would be crazy for a college student, and I was then set on using any money for travel towards Australia. I told Jim I would mull it over, and I went home for the weekend.

You know those moms that are just super cool? The kind that raise you right, but still try to get you everything? Yeah – that’s my mom. The “cool” mom. Well, I approached her about the situation. I told her I was unsure. She told me that I was silly for doubting, and that this is a once in a lifetime experience. Then, she said the magic words: “I’ll worry about the cost. You just go have a good time.”

That’s when I knew that this was no accident. Everything seemed to fall in place. It seemed almost like divine intervention to me. How did I get so lucky? I decided to go with it.

When I first met my students over Facebook and Google Hangout video chats, I knew I made the right choice. They all were so diverse and had amazing personalities. What was cool about the students is that we all had special connections. I felt like I was responsible for their futures – the success they had with me as a coach would determine their success in the future (well, maybe not, but I felt like it). And every week, I could see the progress happening. Instead of using basic English, they started to use more advanced language and even incorporated slang. I couldn’t believe it!

When July came along, I was more nervous than ever. As a Type 1 Diabetic, traveling was always stressful. But then – at 19 years old – I was to travel across the world to a foreign country for a whole month. And I only knew um pouco (a little) Portuguese, so that seemed even scarier. But I had come this far, and I wasn’t going to stop right there.

Landing in Brazil was like a movie. As the plane got closer to the ground, the hills and trees seemed to reach up to the sky. And, since Salvador is on a peninsula, the ocean was visible. And it went on for eternity. Once the plane hit the ground, all of the stress went away. This wasn’t no Canada or Mexico trip – I was thousands of miles away from home and in a completely new world.

We were lucky, our team Salvador; we got to stay in a hotel the entire trip. Hotel Cocoon, a bizarre hotel with a space theme, eventually became our Brazilian home. My roommate was an angel named Maddison Reilly. Little did I know that she would become like a sister to me.

The school I taught at – SENAI CIMATEC – was a 10 minute bus ride away from our hotel. It was cool being so close to everything; something I was not used to while living in Armada (the nearest McDonald’s was 20 minutes away by car). The bus ride took us along the oceanside, so every morning ride to work was beautiful. Our first day there, all of the coaches were surprised with a huge welcoming ceremony! There was live music performed by the students, Baiano food (Baiano meaning “from Bahia”), and plenty of love to go around. We danced, sang, and finally got to meet our students in person. Easily one of the best days of my entire life.

The days at SENAI were incredible. From 8 am to 9 am, I taught a group of students with more advanced English understanding. These students were known as my EFL students. And then, my Project Based Group, my original students, from 9 am to 11 am. Because of one of my first Portuguese words being “batata” (in English, “potato”), we decided to call ourselves the Batatas. And after 11am, it was lunch time at the school. The coaches got on the bus and traveled back to the hotel at 1 pm. It was a nice schedule to follow Monday through Friday, and I got used to it real quick.

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Some of the activities in class were just fun and games!

What did the classroom days look like? Well, I refused to be a “worksheet teacher.” When USBC put us through coach training, they focused on non-traditional ways of learning through a variety of activities. I used that to the best of my ability. I oftentimes had the students start out the day by answering some questions left on the board via lined paper; we would go over answers in class and discuss. Sometimes about grammar, other times about culture. We spent a majority of the day playing games. Games that I liked to use in my old Improv student group, like “Park Bench” and “Party Quirks.” While they may have different rules, these games were all, essentially, fill-in-the-blank games, where participants have to use their quick thinking to figure out what the dialogue would be. For my students, it was perfect because they had to quickly use English. While they knew English very well, advanced English was where they had trouble. By using these games, they were forced to think quick. It was incredible seeing the way they would change their dialogue during the games from Week 1 to Week 4 – it was a noticeable difference in each student. And, being so close to the other coaches’ classrooms, I was able to create bonds with other students. These are bonds I would never forget.

From going out and about with the coaches, teaching at SENAI, exploring Salvador with Maddison, and lazy days in the sun, I was becoming extremely comfortable with the idea of living in Brazil. I mean, I have a lot of crazy thoughts, but moving to Brazil had to have been one of the craziest. Although, it was hard to think of my future when I couldn’t imagine my life being this great once I returned to the US. I was working my dream job in a foreign country where I felt like I belonged. I did my best to soak it all in.

While Team Salvador had many outings, my favorite one had to be to Barra with Maddison. Yes, I’m a people person, but having one-on-one time with my roommate was especially important to me. Barra is one of the nicer parts of Salvador; known for being where Carnaval is held every year, it is an area that follows the beach and leads to a lighthouse known as Farol da Barra. There are very nice restaurants, shops, and incredible views. Maddison and I were especially drawn to the lighthouse. You were able to go behind the lighthouse and gaze at the ocean. The waves crashing below, the boats floating away, the surfers colliding with the sea… it was pure heaven. If I could show only one place from Salvador, Barra would be it.

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The waves crash against the rocks behind Farol da Barra, Salvador, Bahia.

By the end of the program, Brazil meant more to me than I ever thought anything ever could. The last day was the most emotional day of my life. I told my Batatas that I would start saving and try to return in February, but, truth is, I didn’t know when I would return. I wasn’t even sure how I would save up the money. But I had to return. We stood in a circle in front of the bus, crying and hugging. I gave each student a long hug and a few words. These weren’t my students anymore – they were my best friends.

I knew I had to come back. And I found a way to make it happen.

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From Northern Michigan to Costa Rica


Posted on Jul 1, 2015

Randy Webster

Randy Webster

Randy Webster

Randy is a student in the Freshwater Studies program at Northwestern Michigan College. He has been the recipient of several scholarships: Adopt-A-Student, the Global Opportunity Fund, the Science/Math Honors Merit Scholarship, and the Jensen-Lena C Scholarship.

Randy visits a waterfall near the Arenal volcano.

Randy visits a waterfall near the Arenal volcano.

Randy has many reasons to celebrate summer. One of them is his successful completion of the Freshwater Studies Internship with an international, interdisciplinary team of students and faculty from Northwestern Michigan College in the United States, and EARTH University in Costa Rica. An accomplished chef with 40 years of experience, Randy is broadening his professional outlook, exploring a new career in water. We are very pleased to feature his internship story.

Randy writes about his experiences:

Soil and water analysis lab at EARTH University

Soil and water analysis lab at EARTH University

Collecting soil samples at a banana plantation

Collecting soil samples at a banana plantation

There are many things that impacted me during my Freshwater Studies internship in Costa Rica. The learning experiences I was offered were multidisciplinary and well-rounded, most informative and inspiring.

The most interesting thing I did was collecting water, soil and nematode samples, but, in addition to taking the samples, I learned much from the work we did in the lab, while we analyzed the samples ourselves. Lab work was particularly interesting to me because we performed several tests that I have never done before like nematode counts, chemical oxygen demand, soil density and pH.

Lots of exercise walking down 115 steps to the valley!

Lots of exercise walking down 115 steps to the valley!

Far and foremost, I will remember the Costa Rican people, who strike me as very friendly. I appreciated being exposed to many cultures at EARTH University, especially after being cooped up here in Northern Michigan for nearly ten years!

I had the fortune of visiting Roots, the farm where I did my homestay. Roots is not a farm, per se, as it doesn’t really produce any agriculture, but it is an ideal place to learn about sustainable life.

The property sits on approximately 7 hectares and is sunk deep in a valley, 80 meters, with a river along the rear of the property and some fairly intense jungle between the house and the river. There were 115 steps leading down into the valley.

Randy with Roots owner Douglas Gomez and an NMC UAS student

Randy with Roots owner Douglas Gomez and an NMC UAS student

The owners, Douglas and María, raise tilapia, which they harvest twice a year. Douglas gives tours of his farm to school children, and others, promoting green living and existing as one with the land. He is also on a committee of ten people to preserve the river that runs behind his property.

Chef Randy cooks tilapia for his host family.

Chef Randy cooks tilapia for his host family.

The first day at Raíces we spent just touring the property and cleaning up some of the trails. That night I talked Maria into letting me cook the tilapia for the evening meal. I marinated it in garlic, chilies, fresh lemon and limes, and olive oil. Then I saute’d it with more chilies, garlic, coconut milk and finished it with hard butter. Turned out great!

Overall, this was an outstanding experience. I just wish we had been there longer so I could get immersed in Spanish and develop my language skills to the level I demand of myself. I did, however, learn how to say “Pura Vida” without an accent.

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Want a way to stand out from the crowd when it’s time to look for a job?

Consider a study abroad trip. Students who study abroad find a job twice as fast as those who don’t and earn $7,000 more, according to 2012 studies.

NMC Flight Instructor Abigail Smelzer as a student on a 2011 trip to the UK.

NMC Flight Instructor Abigail Smelzer as a student on a 2011 trip to the UK.

Moreover, in a global economy employers increasingly value study abroad experiences, but relatively few students take them, according to the Chicago Tribune. NMC Flight Instructor Abigail Smelzer is one who did and saw it pay off in her job hunt.

As an aviation student at NMC, she visited the United Kingdom in 2011 and South Africa in 2014. Steve Ursell, Head of International Aviation at NMC, said those trips gave Smeltzer an edge when the department was looking to employ flight instructors in August 2014.

“Her experience in both the UK and South Africa certainly assisted her in gaining a flight instructor position at NMC because we have a very active international program,” Ursell said.

“Because I went on the trip as a student, now I understand the whole point of what the international program is about,” Smelzer said.

Smelzer, a 2009 Bear Lake High School graduate, has been drawn to travel since she was a child and chose aviation as a way to further that passion.

“’I’ve always been wanting to go places,” she said. She took her first trip overseas at the age of 17, to visit an exchange sister in Germany.

Committing to a study abroad trip can feel like a leap of faith, especially for students who haven’t traveled much previously. But Smelzer says it’s worth it.

“Just do it, you will thank yourself later. Travel is the art of adventure. When you travel you gain a greater understanding for cultures and a better understanding of yourself as a person.  Travel will not only make your job future brighter but it also makes it more colorful. ”

NMC’s International Services office also has resources available. Visit online or stop by the office in the lower level of West Hall.

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Growing female scientists


Posted on Dec 11, 2014

How do you get girls interested in STEM fields?

Consider showing them some stems.

Real, live, green ones, that is, with leaves growing. Put the girls — young women, really — in charge, from planting the microgreens to tending them to monitoring them.  Charge them with running experiments and collecting data, like whether the greens grow better under fluorescent lights or LED lights, and whether plain water or fish tank water is more nourishing. Let them harvest, and judge which kind tastes best.

From left, Taylor West, Constanza Hazelwood and Karla Vega with greens grown in their vertical agriculture project.

From left, Taylor West, Constanza Hazelwood and Karla Vega with greens grown in the vertical agriculture structure shown behind them.

That’s what intern Karla Vega and student Taylor West did this semester in a lab on NMC’s Great Lakes campus. The pair forged a research partnership that not only bridged language and cultural barriers but helps lay the groundwork for sustainable, indoor agriculture that could eventually improve the diets of millions.

“To get girls engaged in science we need to let them make decisions, give them room to make mistakes and try things out on their own,” said NMC Water Studies Institute Education and Outreach Coordinator Constanza Hazelwood, who supervised Vega and  West’s research this semester.

Vega is a Bolivian student at EARTH University in Costa Rica, a leading institution in agricultural sciences and sustainable development. Hazelwood has cultivated connections at EARTH since 2009 and was looking to take the hydroponic vertical agriculture project she started a year ago to the next level. Enter Vega on a semester-long internship.

“Karla came with a lot of expertise in what we’re doing. She brought a lot of innovation to what we’re doing in the lab,” Hazelwood said.

The challenge of the vertical agriculture project bonded Vega, 20, who studies agronomy and natural resources management in Costa Rica, and West, 21, whose science interest was piqued in a high school agriscience program.

“People say, ‘why agriculture when you are from a city?’” said Vega, whose home city, Cochabamba, is home to almost 2 million people. “It was a challenge. This project can be used inside cities, where they don’t have space to grow crops.”

“That’s what women like, is a challenge,” said West.

The challenge will continue next semester, when West will visit Vega at EARTH, joining Hazelwood’s fifth study abroad trip to Costa Rica.

“The tables are going to be turned,” said West, who said her Spanish skills are negligible but expressed no concern about immersing herself in the language.

Hazelwood, too, has no doubts both students will continue to flourish. She notes that the pair made the greatest gains after the male student who originally supervised the vertical agriculture project left.

“They believe in themselves. They’re very self-confident,” she said. “It is about believing in them, at times it is getting out of their way, but always being available to support them.”

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The game changers under our noses

The game changers under our noses


Posted on Jun 27, 2014

Northwestern Michigan College alum John Militello, was selected as one of the speakers at this year’s TEDx Traverse City event.  Militello is the head of creative for Google’s agency like ZOO Team.  He leads a 14 person creative team of creative directors, creative technologists, designers, copy writers and video producers.  He is also an adjunct professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

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Startup Weekend Traverse City

Startup Weekend Traverse City


Posted on Jun 17, 2014

NMC’s Keith Kelly with an update on the successful Startup Weekend Traverse City held on June 13 at the NMC Parsons-Stulen Building.

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Ask NMC is a regular feature on the NMC Explore Blog set up for you to ask questions about NMC and for us to find the answers.

In this edition, we answer questions about what we do with items or equipment me no longer need, what the demographics of NMC students look like and how a prospective student can sign up for a campus tour.

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