Milne Library’s special collections include mementos from some of the first Geneseo students who studied abroad.

By Annie Renaud ’19

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In 1969, Chris Walsh ’71 spent the summer in what was then Yugoslavia as a student ambassador. He lived with a family in Split and toured the country to learn about its culture. He remembers after news of the moon landing spread, people approached him to shake his hand, congratulating him and the United States. 

People were so excited, he said, “It was almost like I landed on the moon myself.” 

Walsh was one of several students who participated in Geneseo’s College Ambassador Program. According to the Livingston County Leader newspaper, it was started
in 1957 by the late John McKiernan, a professor and chair of the English department, in cooperation with the Student Senate. The program sent students abroad from 1964 to 1971. Ambassadors attended language and culture training at the School of International Training in Vermont, before leaving the United States. 

In appreciation, Walsh gave the College a silver Turkish coffee and sugar set from Sarajevo. He said it represented the many cultures of people who live in Yugoslavia. Gifts from the ambassadors are part of five distinct Special Collections preserved in Milne Library. Those collections focus on rare books, historical items pertaining to the Genesee Valley and the Wadsworth family, local architecture, the late professor Walter Harding’s writings on Henry David Thoreau, and College archives. The ambassador collection also includes a handmade plate from Sweden and a wooden rack for drinking glasses that Greg Tolcott ’68 brought back from Greece. 

Tolcott says the experience shaped his life and career.

“I learned that I love being overseas, and that’s what I wanted to do with the rest of my life,” he said. “It reinforced an interest I had in what was happening in the world and wanting to have some impact on the world.”

Tolcott became a U.S. foreign service officer, assigned to embassies all over the world, including the Philippines, New Zealand, Sierra Leone and Indonesia. Now retired, Tolcott still travels to various embassies when needed.

The ambassadors were among the first Geneseo students to study abroad. Now, nearly 40 percent of Geneseo graduates do. There are some 600 programs to choose from; more than 50 are led by Geneseo faculty. 

This January, Melanie Medeiros, assistant professor of anthropology, will lead students to Cuba as they investigate race and the black experience in the Americas. Geneseo is also expanding its offerings in Ghana, with a new partnership with Webster University that will allow Geneseo students to study there for a full semester. 

Study abroad experiences are so powerful, said Interim Director of the Study Abroad Office Samuel Cardamone, because students have the chance to grow inside and outside the classroom. “It pushes students outside of their boundaries,” he said.

The collection is a good reminder, said Walsh. “It represents the lasting value of learning about foreign cultures,” he said. “Doing so can be a life-defining experience. It’s as important now as it was 50 years ago.”