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Now & Then | Niki Lee

Tom and Niki Lee in Equador
Tom and Nikki Lee in Ecuador

Sixteen years after going with her father on his study abroad experience, spring grad graduates with the family passion for languages and cultures

The year is 1998. Tom Lee, a former Marine with a master's degree in education, has just been offered a chance to complete his University of Idaho Spanish and English as a Second language (ESL) degree in Ecuador. His only concern was that it meant relocating his family, including his 8-year-old daughter Niki. It would be the first time anyone in the program had taken a child along. His advisor at the time, Modern Language and Culture professor Irina Kappler-Crookston, had a solution.

“We knew that the only way for him to finish his Spanish degree quickly and to become fluent in Spanish was to go abroad. Together we chose the Ecuador,” explains Kappler-Crookston.

In addition, she arranged for him to stay there for four months rather than the normal nine, housed with a family she knew, and with a school lined up Niki.

He accepts.

“The cost of the program was also affordable for him,” she adds. “Sure, I was worried about the family situation, but it turned out to be an amazing experience for the both of them.”

Fast forward sixteen years and that same child is graduating from the University of Idaho with her own study abroad experience and four academic degrees: French, Horticulture, International Studies . . . and Spanish. Niki remembers few specific details about her youthful excursion, although she does recall the sense of “culture shock, language shock, this whole new environment.”

A young Niki Lee in Equador
A young Nikki Lee in Ecuador

Her father recalls a bit more. “8-year-olds learn much faster than 48-year-olds. I would try to talk to the taxi driver and Niki would go off in the back seat like a native. They were always so surprised.”

There was also the volcano.

“We had volcano days rather than snow days, “Lee explains. “It was very stressful with an 8-year-old and we had to move houses several times to get out of the way of mudflow routes."

It was a fitful eruption that raged on and off throughout the November of 1999, raining three and four inches of ash. Niki, for her part, wasn't deterred.

“I remember thinking, 'oh, I can adapt to a new situation,'” she says.

This is mindset that has served her well. In the years since her stint in Ecuador, her interest in languages and travel has taken her to Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, and Azerbaijan. These experiences also led her to pursuing so many degrees.

“I couldn't decide,” she says.

So rather than choosing one language or the other she chose both French and Spanish as majors and, on top of that, International Studies. “It made sense.”

She explains her degree in horticulture as the result of her time in France, working on an organic farm for two months. Her ten-month stay in Chile was spent in Talca, working on breeding strawberries and blueberries. She wanted to compliment her language and international degrees with something else, and “food is global.”

She adds that integrating her international experiences as part of her education allowed her to create a personalized program that was unique.

Niki Lee making gutab, a traditional Azerbaijani dish with two friends.
Niki Lee making gutab, a traditional Azerbaijani dish with two friends.

“The University of Idaho offers lots of opportunities to study abroad,” she says, “and the professors are willing to work with you individually. They're aware of your strengths and interests.”

Incredibly, Niki's older brother Jack Lee also attended UI and graduated with a Spanish degree. Like his sister, he traveled abroad - this time in Murcia, Spain, where he studied classical guitar and he took all his coursework with regular Spanish students.

Kappler-Crookston notes her satisfaction at being able to mentor so many members of the Lee family, as well as countless other students who have studied abroad.

“It was a treat and fun working with people with such an adventurous spirit and willingness to step outside the box to experience living in different cultures. . . Seeing the transformation that occurs from the time the students have their first study abroad session with me before their study abroad experience and seeing what they learn linguistically and culturally has been the highlight of my career at the UI. I believe that everyone at the undergraduate level should have the experience of living, volunteering, working and/or studying in a culture other than their own.”

Clearly these experiences continue to create ripple effects as all three put their language skills to good use. Jack Lee currently works on a cruise ship, Tom Lee works at Washington State University as an ESL instructor, and after graduation Niki plans on traveling throughout Europe with hopes of living and working there.

Article by Paige Orwin

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