When Jessica Weston was choosing a study abroad location, she had two qualifications: beautiful weather and English-speaking. So, she chose the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where she was able to fulfill her academic requirements, as well as develop her interest in volunteer work through a course called “Rebuilding Christchurch.” The New Zealand city was recovering from a series of violent earthquakes.
Jessica Weston (right) developed a disaster relief campaign and provided supplies and more than $5,000 for tornado victims in Washington, Illinois.
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Several months later, her own hometown, Washington, Illinois, was hit with a disaster: a powerful tornado that injured more than 120 people and damaged almost 500 homes. She drew upon her experiences to start a successful grassroots relief effort run out of her campus apartment.
In November 2014, Jessica was invited to return to Christchurch to give the keynote address at the Second Annual New Zealand Tertiary Community Engagement Summit at the University of Canterbury, an honor acknowledging her tremendous service to both the community of Christchurch and her hometown.
Illinois study abroad by the numbers
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She credits her success to the opportunities made available by the Illinois study abroad program.
What do you think makes the Illinois study abroad experience unique compared to other schools’ programs?
The Illinois study abroad experience is unique because of the vast opportunities and choices made available to students. The office does an excellent job of engaging with students from the moment they step onto campus to get them thinking about the benefits of study abroad and to help them determine the best ways for building it into their educational plan. For example, even though Canterbury didn’t have many classes that were pre-approved for credit, I was able to take every class for credit through professor approval.
It’s very encouraging to experience the U. of I. working with you personally to create the experience that fits best with your life goals. Illinois a very pro-study abroad university, which makes it easier for students to take advantage of this life-changing opportunity.
What drew you to a study abroad program in New Zealand, and why was “Rebuilding Christchurch” such a meaningful part of that experience?
I was originally drawn to New Zealand because I wanted to study abroad in a famously beautiful locale and English-speaking country, so that I could connect with the locals on a deep level – unhampered by language limitations – and also enjoy the natural habitat.
The University of Canterbury stood out to me as soon as I read about the “Rebuilding Christchurch” course, which is modeled on the Student Volunteer Army’s post-earthquake response. Volunteering is something I have always enjoyed, but being able to deconstruct what it meant at an intellectual level and then design my own programming sounded like an amazing academic opportunity.
My favorite service project was our final class project where we designed and implemented an initiative to help with the continued rebuilding of Christchurch. As a class we organized the first event of the newly launched “Bring It Home” initiative, where our class volunteered alongside the residents of Rattray Street for a collective cleanup day. I worked on the marketing team that branded the event, built awareness, designed the logo, and reached out to local businesses for donations.
The experience was empowering on two key levels: one, it challenged me to look at problems in my own home community and to think creatively about how I could use my new talents and skills to find solutions there going forward; and, two, the program really focused on ways in which my generation – often overlooked when thinking about social global issues – could band together to make a difference in the world.
How did your study abroad experience impact your understanding of who you are in the world? And how have those lessons helped you in further volunteer projects?
First and foremost, it helped me understand what my personal strengths are, and then allowed me to develop the tools I would need to apply those strengths to similar contexts. Because it was hands-on and community based, the course was pivotal to developing my creative capacity to take relief concepts and apply them more broadly.
This subsequently enabled me to develop a disaster relief campaign for my hometown, Washington, Illinois, which was severely damaged by a tornado in 2013. Even though this is a town most of my classmates at the U. of I had never heard of, I managed to raise awareness of its plight and needs by organizing other students to help assist in my relief efforts. Our team focused on sharing stories and pictures of Washington and using social media to support our #fillthetruck campaign, aimed at gathering emergency supplies for my town.
The visual shock of the devastation and the way we organized our outreach and logistical efforts really rallied the people of Champaign-Urbana to help immediately. We made it easy for people to donate by opening our campus apartments as donation drop-off centers and offering online monetary donation options. We also reached out to local news stations to mobilze a larger network in Champaign, and our interviews yielded even more donations.
My team and I started our campaign on the Monday before fall break; by Friday, we had an entire 18-foot truck full of supplies and over $5,000 in monetary donations. And that was just the beginning.
How has your Illinois study abroad experience changed your life for the better?
I truly found a “home away from home” in Christchurch, and I largely credit this course for giving me a way to connect with the local population on a deep and tangible level – which then came full circle and enabled me to help my hometown. I think that’s really the beauty of the U. of I. study abroad experience – not only do you find your personal strength and grow in a new environment, you get to return home with so much more to offer.