Senior Alaina Plauche has heeded her own advice to future Tar Heels about studying abroad. This Carolina Covenant Scholar never could have imagined that her academic journey would take her to Bhutan, Spain, Uganda and Washington, D.C.
In fall 2019, public policy major Alaina Plauche became the first Phillips Ambassador and UNC student to study in Bhutan, a landlocked country in the Eastern Himalayas. She had first learned about Bhutan because of its Gross National Happiness Index (think of a broader economic measurement tool than the GNP).
“GNH is more holistic — looking at quality of life, mental health, access to transportation and education and health care,” said Plauche, who grew up in Wilmington and is pursuing a minor in urban studies. “When I was scrolling through the study abroad options, I thought, ‘When else am I going to have the opportunity to go to Bhutan?’”
While there, she studied the Dzongkha language, took political history and water resource management classes, and did an internship for credit with the Center for Local Governance. After finishing her program in Bhutan, she came home, then traveled back to Asia to explore Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand on her own.
Before making her way to Bhutan, Plauche spent the summer hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain through the six-week program, “Being a Pilgrim: Art, Ritual and Landscapes of the Camino de Santiago,” led by art professors Mario Marzan and Roxana Perez Mendez.
“It’s 500 miles across Spain, and the first day you climb over the Pyrenees,” she said. “That was an awesome opportunity. I met some of my best friends on that trip.”
Plauche, a first-generation student, confesses she is probably in the minority by signing up for every listserv — “I’m in the .05 percent that reads everything, including flyers in dorms and libraries.” In 2018, the summer after her first year at Carolina, she applied on the day the application was due for an opportunity she found through the Campus Y to go to Uganda. She worked at a nonprofit school for children with disabilities called Obwaagazi Children’s Foundation.
Early on in her academic journey, Plauche was already learning something about her love of travel; she writes about it in a blog post about the Uganda trip — “This summer, I realized that my relationships with other people are what define my ‘home.’ It doesn’t have to be a literal house, town, state or even country. Wherever my people are feels like home. … I believe the truest way to experience a place is through the customs, dress, holidays, food and culture of its people.”
The Campus Y became a special place on campus for Plauche — you could find the barista on many days at Meantime Coffee, where she has worked since 2018. She served as the student-run nonprofit’s CEO this past academic year.
In spring 2021, Plauche seized another opportunity, one that she had always been interested in through her major — the Honors Seminar on Public Policy and Global Affairs in D.C. She took three classes and had an internship for credit with the Death Penalty Information Center. That summer she worked on Capitol Hill in U.S. Rep. David Price’s office.
“I was sitting on the Metro commuting to Capitol Hill and I was like, ‘This was little Alaina’s dream,’” she said. “I just keep finding cool opportunities through Carolina. I don’t know if I’ll ever leave.”
She’s not ready to leave just yet: Plauche was accepted into the inaugural master’s program in public policy, a dual bachelor’s/graduate degree. She began taking classes for the MPP program this spring.
“Because the Carolina Covenant enabled me to graduate without debt, I was able to afford to apply to this program,” she said. “They’re really committed to connecting us to jobs and conferences and helping us get all the professional development skills that we need.”
As she reflects on her undergraduate days, Plauche remembers attending an event during her first year where a student talked about studying abroad three times. “Initially I thought, ‘No way I’ll ever do that.’ Now, I guess you can tell I like traveling and experiencing other cultures!”
Plauche pauses for only a moment before offering this advice to incoming students: “Go abroad. Say yes to opportunities. It’s about the journey, not the destination.”
By Kim Spurr, College of Arts & Sciences