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Field trip to meet President Jimmy Carter gives IU Northwest students lessons of a lifetime

Wednesday Oct 26, 2016

Cotton fields. Not just pictures in history books, but real, actual, cotton fields where slaves once labored. Nikki Garcia admits she was “blown away” by this sight, zipping by the car window as she and Indiana University Northwest students and professors drove through Georgia on a recent trip.

“I saw history,” she marveled. “In front of my face. Real.”

Though not the central purpose of the trip, this small experience illustrates the impact a road trip with your professors and fellow students can have on one’s education. Experiences that satisfy curiosity and encourage discovery are hallmarks of an IU Northwest education and experiences like this deliver that promise.

John Tsolakos, lecturer, and Karl Besel, assistant dean and director of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA), recently accompanied five students to Plains, Ga. for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In September, Garcia, along with Joseph Molchan, Lauren Vafiadis, Donna Messer and Jackie Helton, all members of the Criminal Justice Student Association (CJSA), attended a banquet in honor of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, or more appropriately, “Jimmy,” as everyone called him. They visited the 92-year-old former president’s childhood home and even took in the 20th Annual Plains Peanut Festival.

Before he came to IU Northwest, Besel worked with a judge from Carter’s campaign in the 1970s who arranged for the students to attend the banquet and surrounding activities.

The students, who had to do some research on the 92-year-old former president whose time in the White House predates them, described how the experience of life outside of the textbook changed them.

Lauren Vafiadis, 27, said she “has a whole new feeling of what I want to do.”

“I thought I wanted to go into corrections,” she said, “but this trip helped me realize how big we as individuals can be, so I am completely turning around what I want to do. What we are doing in SPEA, what Joe (Molchan) and I and the club are doing and realizing what we could potentially become, it is changing my whole outlook.”

Professor of Public Policy and Environmental Affairs Joseph Gomeztagle, said the trip accomplished blasting students out of their shells.

By nature of the discipline, which prepares students for a variety of careers in the public sector, nonprofit sector and allied fields, Gomeztagle explained that public affairs students need to get out into the world, and in experiencing new things, they need to collaborate in order to make the change that they desire in the world.

“What we have in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs are students who are community-oriented by nature,” he said. “By getting to know one another and learning from experiences such as their trip to meet a former U.S. President, it becomes easier to talk about issues that are out there and work towards the common good of Northwest Indiana. It was great to see them come back with such energy.”

From observing “Jimmy” in action at the 29th Annual Convention Banquet of the Carter Political Items Collectors, the students said they learned the value of humility. Even when his benevolence rose to the level of the presidency, he never forgot the people who helped him along the way, Molchan noted.

“Be the humblest person possible,” is the lesson Molchan took away from the experience. “Make sure that everything you have learned, keep that with you. Never try and outdo yourself or anyone around you. The person next to you, you don’t need to “one up” them. You need to keep those people with you your entire career.”

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