Geography professor strives to build students’ global perspective


University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor Paul Kaldjian says that he enjoys and finds value in traveling with students. © 2019 Peter Martin

Peter Martin

To Professor Paul Kaldjian, travel is more than tourism—it’s a way to develop and maintain lasting relationships with people, places and ideas from around the world.

“I love sharing the world with students,” said Kaldjian, who holds a doctorate in geography from the University of Arizona. “And I love traveling, not as a tourist, but with questions, with preparation, with a desire to learn about how the world works and how other people approach things.”

Since he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire in the fall of 2002, Paul Kaldjian has traveled around the world with students. He’s taken students on trips across the world, from foreign locales like Veracruz, Istanbul and Thunder Bay, to American cities like La Crosse and Chicago.

Kaldjian sees travel as a way to create life-long learners and change the way that students experience other cultures. On a trip to Turkey with students, he took them outside of the city of Istanbul and into the forests around it to experience an old Turkish tradition.

“There’s a fascinating place [outside Istanbul] where people are making charcoal in the traditional way,” Kaldjian said, describing the area. Making charcoal in the traditional way is a harsh process—it involves cutting and harvesting wood in sustainable ways, preparing mounds to burn the wood anaerobically and getting dirty.

At first, students thought it must be a miserable job, Kaldjian said. But they didn’t have a perception of what the employees working felt of it.

Noah Wiedenfeld, now director of planning for the City of New Richmond, was a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire student when he accompanied Kaldjian to Turkey in 2012. He thought seeing the charcoal making in process was a great teaching moment.

“It was an experience for a lot of us that made us more reflective,” Wiedenfeld said. “It reminded me of growing up working on a dairy farm. There’s a tremendous sense of pride in what you do. It’s a way of life.”

The change between students’ initial perception of the job as miserable and the new perception of the job as proud is one of the things Kaldjian enjoys about traveling.

“I like turning people on to ideas and exposing them to questions like, ‘Why do I think this? Why don’t I know that?’” Kaldjian said.

For Wiedenfeld, the trip to Turkey accomplished that. But it was a process that began long before Kaldjian and his students ever set foot in Turkey.

Before leaving the country, Kaldjian prepared his students in a semester course that went into the culture and customs of Turkey. Wiedenfeld thought the preparatory course was important in laying the groundwork for the trip.

“The fact that you’re taking a semester long course before you go gave us a better experience,” Wiedenfeld said. “It’s not just about taking a selfie by the Eiffel Tower, it’s an authentic experience.”

Turkey isn’t the only place Kaldjian travels to with students. In the past, he has taken students to Veracruz. When Kaldjian took his students there, they stayed away from the beaches and instead headed into the highlands and villages.

“One of my themes when I took students [to Veracruz] was about the migration pathways, the linkages and the context of migration,” Kaldjian said.

The highlands of Veracruz are beautiful, idyllic, and to Kaldjian, they don’t seem too different from the hills here in the Midwest. But they’re also the original home to migrant and seasonal workers who’ve headed north, to the United States, in search of new jobs and new income. A local Veracruz farmer estimates that one-third of the young people in Veracruz have left, according to The Nation’s article “How US Policies Fueled Mexico’s Great Migration.”

At first, the students traveling through Veracruz didn’t understand why people would want to leave and travel to the United States, Kaldjian said.

“One of my favorite student stories was the realization of the sacrifice migrant workers make [and] of the reasons why people have to leave the region and go to the United States,” Kaldjian said. “That kind of enlightenment took place there.”

Kaldjian travels with students to share the world and to create life-long learners by turning people on to new ideas and new questions. In the highlands outside Veracruz, those questions led to the student’s “enlightenment” and the realization of sacrifice that Kaldjian describes. In the forests outside Istanbul, those questions led to feelings of similarity between the charcoal working profession and Wisconsin’s dairy farms that Wiedenfeld describes.

And, at least for Wiedenfeld, those new questions and thoughts didn’t stop at the end of the trip.

“You come away with a different perspective, not just on the rest of the world, but even coming back to the U.S.,” Wiedenfeld said.

For students interested in experiencing these types of trips firsthand, Kaldjian and the Geography department are making plans for new trips overseas and across the world: an international summer immersion course in Finland and Estonia in 2020, a potential trip to Peru in 2020 or 2021 and a more local trip to Hawaii in the spring of 2020.