Karen Kangas-Preston, Senior Academic Specialist and Instructor of Costume Design and Technology in the Department of Theatre, is the 2021 recipient of the MSU Award for Outstanding Service to Education Abroad presented by MSU’s International Studies and Programs.
Since 2008, Kangas-Preston has given her time, energy, and creativity to the development and implementation of the Theatre in London education abroad program, supporting MSU’s commitment to providing students with high-quality international education opportunities. Her efforts exemplify the qualifications for the MSU Award for Outstanding Service to Education Abroad.
Under Kangas-Preston’s leadership, the five-week Theatre in London program offers students the opportunity to intensively study British theatre practice, meet with working industry professionals, take backstage tours, see multiple live theatre productions, and visit museums. Her favorite aspect of education abroad is seeing the students grow from new, life-changing experiences.
Kangas-Preston teaches costume design, costume technology, and stage makeup. Her costume design work has been seen across Michigan at the Williamston Theatre, Tipping Point Theatre, Summer Circle Theatre, and Meadow Brook Theatre. She is the recipient of MSU’s 2018 Fixed-term Faculty and Academic Specialist Leadership Excellence Award in the College of Arts & Letters and the 2019 MSU Distinguished Academic Staff Award.
The MSU Award for Outstanding Service to Education Abroad is given annually to recognize MSU faculty members and academic staff who give their time, energy, and creativity to the development and implementation of education abroad programs that support MSU’s commitment to providing students with high-quality international education opportunities.
Find out more about Kangas-Preston and what motivates her in the following responses she gave to these questions:
What are the long-term impacts you hope the Theatre in London education abroad experience has on your students?
One of my favorite things about seeing the students on the Theatre in London program is opening their eyes to the possibilities of what goes on around the world. There are many students who participate who have very little travel experience — some have never left Michigan, and certainly many have never left the United States. The initial impact of traveling somewhere new is great, but long term it’s letting them see possibility, it’s expanding their minds. They’re getting to see new stories [on stage], new things. There’s an excitement that comes through this experience — they’re learning to take different risks in their work, pushing their work to the edges they didn’t think were possible.
What role does theatre play in solving the world’s most pressing problems?
Theatre comments on what is happening in the world. Theatre productions have always been about a commentary on global issues, local issues, and on interpersonal connections. By putting it on stage in front of an audience, we’re able to see how a situation might play out. It absolutely can change viewpoints. Some of the greatest conversations I have with students are after we see a play, often one with controversial content. We talk about it for days, looping back to it to try to solve a central problem. Good theatre spurs you to start a conversation with the people around you. In the Theatre in London program, we’re seeing productions that make us question what we think we know. Regardless of where you are in the world, theatre should make you talk about what you saw, and that matters.
What motivates your commitment to education abroad?
When I was a freshman in college, my friends and I were hanging out and very randomly began talking about the study abroad program posters we’d seen around campus. And what started out as somewhat of a joke among a group of friends became reality after we all went home over the Thanksgiving break. We’d all talked to our families about the possibility of going abroad, and for some reason they all said yes. I spent my sophomore year in Birmingham, England. It was honestly earth-shattering. I grew up in Wisconsin, went to school in Minnesota, and had a very limited worldview up to that point. I was away for 10 months and all of my perspectives were changed. I had not realized what else was out in the world. I want my students to have that experience…frankly, I want everyone to have that experience. Everyone should go somewhere and have as many of these kinds of experiences as you possibly can, because it will really change you as a human being.
How, if at all, has your philosophy or practice of globally minded service changed in the last year?
It’s been a very difficult year. The Theatre in London program was cancelled for 2021, which was a very hard decision, but a necessary one. The travel costs were prohibitive and it’s important for our students to have an experience they can afford. Outside of that, I think the theatre world has also realized the importance of the communities and shared experiences inherent to what we do. Virtual experiences have absolutely helped keep those connections alive, but it is just not the same as sharing these spaces together in person. I’m eager to get back to those opportunities for myself, my students, and our theatre community at large.
What would you like people to know most about the education abroad experience?
I think it is imperative for everyone to have an education abroad experience. Any of us can travel and be a tourist, but it is a truly different experience to have something that is educationally focused. It’s the education abroad experience that intentionally gives you the exposure to different people and places you wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. I consider it my responsibility to help my students look beyond what they would naturally seek out.
What does it mean to you personally to be part of some of these transformative experiences for your students?
It is my favorite thing about leading an education abroad program; it’s the reason that I have been doing this since 2008. Knowing how it will change the students before they even know it will change them. I have the honor of seeing them grow as global citizens, people who will have an appreciation for travel and diverse voices. It’s spectacular.
(Article written by Veronica Gracia-Wing for the International Studies & Programs website)