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UMPI student “comes home” for graduation

When Elizabeth Day began her education at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, she had no idea how much of the world she’d be seeing, But when she graduates on Saturday, she marches with a three-month field placement in Tanzania under her belt and with her fiancé from The Netherlands in the audience.

Day, a Social Work major who was born and raised in Fort Fairfield, is a first-generation college student who has had a very busy four years at UMPI. She has served as the UMPI Student Representative to the University of Maine System Board of Trustees, a Dean’s List honoree, and a member of the Honors Program, SOSW (Student Organization of Social Work), Student Government Association, and Phi Eta Sigma. She has been named to Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges, and was this year’s recipient of the Outstanding Social Work Student Award and “Rising Star” of the Year Student Leadership Award.

“I chose UMPI because it was close to home, and I knew that I could get the most out of my education,” she said. “I thrive in small classes with personalized learning, which is what was offered to me at UMPI, and so it was a natural choice for me. I have never regretted my decision to stay close to home, save money, and get an amazing education.”

One of the experiences of which Day is most proud is her work in Africa. She had the unique opportunity to do her field placement—Social Work majors are required to complete 500 hours of field service work during their senior year—in Moshi, Tanzania. This field placement was able to happen because of the work UMPI Associate Professor of Social Work Shirley Rush has done over the past few years to develop reciprocal international exchange efforts with education institutions in Tanzania. Several UMPI students have been able to travel to the African country to complete coursework, service learning and clinical rotations because of these efforts.

After Rush was awarded a sabbatical for Spring 2016 with plans to work in Tanzania, Day made the decision to follow her and finish her senior year overseas. During “pre-departure meetings,” which were held monthly to biweekly for a year, Rush asked Day what she hoped to gain from an experience in Africa.

“My answer was that I wanted my world view to change—I wanted to travel and work in a developing country to try to put my life into perspective,” Day said. “I knew that the people here typically lived on the equivalent of 2 USD a day—what would it mean to me to actually see it?”

Day learned everything she could about Tanzania ahead of her trip, and fundraised vigorously in order to pay for her ticket, rent, food and other expenses. When she arrived, she was able to immerse herself, with Rush’s help, in the culture of Tanzania.

Her placement was at Old Moshi Secondary School, where she worked with the head of the Blind Department, Rumisha Masam, teaching students computer skills, from word processing to using applications such as Excel. The place where she was living was close to an orphanage, so she would frequently go and visit with the children there. She also received a tour of the Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation in Tanzania, an organization that works with families who take care of children with disabilities such as spina bifida and club foot. Along with this work, Day also carved out time for some other African experiences, including a safari, a trip to the Indian Ocean, and a tour of a coffee plantation.

“Tanzania forced me outside of my comfort zone—in a good way,” she said. “I was challenged by my preconceived notions. I have witnessed how other people live, including some very sad and depressing stories of families who live in such extreme poverty. But I have also learned that we have more to give than money: it’s time and energy that is most appreciated. All of this travel and experience has helped me prepare professionally and gain a deeper knowledge of my own values and the values of other cultures.”

Day returned to Maine this week so she can take part in Commencement Exercises and accompanying her is her fiancé, Dirk Dijkstra, who hails from Berlikum, The Netherlands. The two met through social media in 2012. Day is the first to note that she was not planning to fall for someone who lived so far away, but they were able to make the more-than-3,000-mile, long-distance relationship work and she’s traveled to Europe several times since 2013 to spend time with him. Day’s education is an important priority for the couple—it’s the main reason they’ve been a long-distance couple for this long—so it was also important for them to be able to spend her graduation day in Presque Isle and share the experience together.

After graduating on Saturday, Day will get to work this summer on her Master’s degree. She was accepted to the University of Maine for a one year Advanced Standing Master’s of Social Work program. Once she finishes that work, she says she doesn’t know what will come next for her and Dirk, but they can’t wait to see where this wide world takes them.