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Meridith Bradford on alpine slide
Meridith Bradford enjoys the alpine slide at Camelback Mountain in Pennsylvania

Gaining More than Academic Knowledge

Students choose courses for a variety of reasons. It may be a requirement of their major or minor. Perhaps it’s the only class that fits their schedules or they like the instructor. Perhaps it’s related to a personal interest, or their friends are taking it. Whatever the reason, students expect to acquire disciplinary knowledge. If they are lucky, however, they learn about themselves and the world around them.

Community development through leisure

In the spring of 2016, Dr. Mike Raycraft offered a course through the Department of Recreation, Sport and Tourism (RST) that emphasized the role of the leisure industry in the economic, social, and environmental development of communities. RST 199 consisted of eight weeks of classroom instruction followed by a 12-day trip to major recreation, sport, and tourism destinations, including halls of fame, museums, and natural attractions. At each location, students met with industry professionals and community leaders, including several RST alumni, to learn more about the destination and its local impact.

The feedback Dr. Raycraft received from students at the end of the course confirmed that they derived great benefit from it and applied their classroom learning to critical examinations of the recreation, sport, and tourism industries. However, the unique perspectives that two of the students brought to the class resulted in a learning experience that went far beyond professional development.

Cool to be included

Lizzy and Meridith at Niagra falls

Meridith Bradford has spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. She can operate her power wheelchair but requires full assistance with the performance of the tasks of daily living. She has never let her disability prevent her from trying new things. As a child, she attended a summer camp where she went zip lining and rode the roller coaster at a nearby amusement park. She has been skiing for 18 years, competitively for the last four years with Disabled Sports USA. In the organization’s last Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, Colorado, she was the first person doing her type of skiing, known as tethered fixed-outrigger bi-skiing, to compete in a level one race event. “Anything that involves me not being in my chair makes me happy,” she said.

Still, Meridith had reservations about the trip attached to the RST course. She’d never been on a trip of that length before and was concerned that the extent of her physical and medical needs would be too great to manage the bus trip. Through the Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services, she found an experienced personal assistant who was happy to help her join her classmates on their travel adventure.

“It was the best trip for sports freaks like me, but I wouldn’t have been able to go without Lizzy Na,” Meridith said. “It was the beginning of the summer, the end of my last year of classes, and it felt like a reward.”

Meridith hiking in the Adirondak Mountains

Despite her fearlessness, the trip still taught her something about her own resiliency and the kindness of others. During her first time hiking in the woods on a trail in the Adirondack Mountains, her fellow students helped her over roots and rocks when she got stuck. Then her chair broke. Meridith insisted she could wait alone until help arrived, but three of the other students insisted on remaining with her. “It was cool for me to be included and to be so well accepted by the group,” she said. “I didn’t feel restricted at all, socially or task-wise.”

Fortunately, the chair was repaired within a few hours at a garage in Lake Placid, New York, and Meridith completed the trip. With the help of her personal assistant, she mastered the rigors involved with changing hotels nearly every day, which was no small task given that she needed to keep track of a great deal of equipment and special supplies.

“It was cool to learn that a trip like this is possible for me,” she said. “I hope my experience opens the door for people like me who might hesitate to take advantage of a similar opportunity because of their disabilities.”

Gaining cultural knowledge

Youyou with Hershey's chocolate mascot

Youyou Zhang is deeply interested in the intercultural communication that takes place during tourism experiences. She hopes to do research on how traveling impacts tourists’ perceptions and opinions of other countries. “My curiosity about the world has been well fed by the University of Illinois and RST so far,” she said, and she plans to continue her studies in graduate school.

Youyou had taken a marketing class with Dr. Raycraft. When she heard about his course on community development and the trip it involved, she immediately knew that she wanted to go. “My interactions with other RST students had been limited to the classroom setting,” she said. “I knew the trip would enable me to know them better and more deeply, and to learn about American culture as well.”

Youyou in the dugout of Doubleday Field

One of the things she learned about was baseball. Youyou watched her very first baseball game at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York, while her classmates explained the rules of the game to her. She enjoyed the small parties that took place in the hotel rooms, where she learned more about American pop culture and music. She feels the trip provided her with the time and opportunity to develop her social skills, as well as a more “Midwest United States” sense of humor. She marveled at the scenery in places such as Niagara Falls and Lake Placid, and treasured the variety of people and places she was able to experience.

With the help of her fellow travelers, Youyou felt she was living in American culture as an “insider,” and she built a personal connection to the culture. It was truly an experience, she said, that she will remember for the rest of her life.

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