Alumni Spotlight: Nolan Petersen

Nolan is a community minded change-maker, social justice advocate, outspoken queer. Based in Iowa, but connected worldwide, he is always looking to increase his impact. Fabulous is just a start.

Why did you choose this program?

Performing with Up With the People

I was initially exposed to the idea of going because my mother traveled with Up with People in the 70s (77 to be exact).

But, I chose UWP because it had so much of what I was looking for: travel without the limitations of staying in hotels, a more immersive experience (both with host families and in doing community service in places we stayed), more than a US-centric experience (both in travel and in program perspective), and the chance to meet more people on a more personal level - which living around 100 people for 6 months has that affect!

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

As I was a US-based student, I did not have to do much on my end before entering the program. I did have to fundraise my tuition, which was done through a letter-writing campaign to my mother's alumni cast-mates, using personal savings, and selling personal assets.

UWP did offer more ideas for fundraising, but I had enough for one semester, which is all I planned to do when I started the program.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Feedback will be extremely useful, and is a big part of Up with People. This means both positive feedback as well as constructive feedback. Be ready for it, and don't let ego get in the way of growing from the feedback. Whether it is from cast mates, staff, host family members, or community members - recognize that many people truly want you to just be the best version of yourself.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

During staging in Denver, the days are similar in that they are practically an 8-5 job. That time is spent learning the show (both dancing and singing), doing workshops to develop cast culture and instill expectations, and also doing fun things to make memories with your new cast mates in Denver.

Sundays are 'host family day'--the day reserved for host families to enjoy time with the students they are hosting. That may mean a 'day off' for some students, but for many, host families will want to take you to see and enjoy what their city or region have to offer.

A Mexican host family may want to take you to experience some local food and meet their extended family; a Swiss host family may want to take you on a drive of the countryside! Host families may understand if you need a break, but they also are hoping you are excited to spend time with them.

Mondays are travel day. The days is started with tearful goodbyes to the friends and families you've met in the city, and the getting onto a bus to leave for the next place. Monday evening are usually host allocation meetings, where you get to meet your next host family, along with getting a schedule for the week ahead.

Tuesday and Wednesdays are usually Community Action days - the cast makes its presence known in the local community by working in schools, doing public projects, etc. to try to impact the city they are staying in. This is usually facilitated by local project leaders - community organizers who helped us find the work we will be doing, and also are locals who help us spread the word about the cast being in town.

Thursday is a mixed-bag. Sometimes it is a rehearsal day, if needed. Sometimes it is a chance for the whole cast to experience a locally famous site, such as going to see a capitol building or a major cultural landmark. Sometimes, it is another community action day.

Friday is spent working on the show. The morning is devoted to setup for the stage, followed by rehearsals most of the day. If there is no show the next day, then it is a late evening to strike all the stage and equipment - all of the work is done by cast members, with team leadership provided by staff.

Saturday is sometimes a grab-bag, but usually it will be a second show day. Often, they will try to allow participants to enjoy an extra hour of sleep, but that is mostly to compensate for the likely late night striking the stage if it wasn't done Friday evening. Show days are very high energy, and also critical times for the cast. It is fast-paced, and physically intensive. That is why Sunday is, by comparison, a day of rest, even if your host family still wants to show you around town.

Within each day: every day starts with morning meeting, where the cast gathers and talks about what is happening, where folks are going and doing, who is leading what projects for the day, etc. Birthday are celebrated, local festivities are mentioned, and if cast members are celebrating a holiday in their culture on that day, it is also mentioned!

Lunch is a coordinated effort, often brought to the locations people are (rather than having everyone travel back to one place for lunch), and rarely will a host family be expected to provide lunch every day - but if they offer snacks, take them!

There is usually SOME amount of show rehearsal each day, even if it is just a warm-up and short singing session, the show is a major component of the experience, so it is always being rehearsed.

And then each day ends with wrap-up: folks tell where they went and what they did, who they met maybe, and staff lay out information for the days and weeks ahead. Then host families will arrive at the location to pick students up and drive them home to eat dinner at the host families' houses.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it and/or how did your views on the issue change?

I was worried if I was going to be 'enough' - was I going to be open enough for people to see past my 'US American' stereotype?

Was I going to be happy enough to overcome the stresses of homesickness and the typical sadness of everyday life (in an environment where everyone sees all of your emotions, always)? Was I going to be energetic enough to keep up with everything? Was I going to be open-minded enough to not stereotype my host families, my cast mates, my staffers, etc.?

The answer was, ultimately, no. One person could not be all those things. Some days I had enough energy, and some days I did not. Some days, I was the most open-minded to the most crazy things, and some days I was not.

But I was surrounded by friends, staff, and more who were wishing me nothing but success. I was supported to be the best version of myself everyday, and that version wasn't always the same. And, because of that, I also learned that I had a duty to support others in the same way.

When I had extra energy, I used it to help out someone who was tired that day; when I was nothing but optimistic, I would try to cheer someone up who was having a hard day.

I was enough, but not because I was always right 100% of the time. I was enough because I was willing to try 100% of the time.

What are some of the basic requirements of the program?

A basic understanding of English is, generally, considered a requirement - though exceptions have been known to happen. Being financially able to afford the tuition, though there are scholarships to assist people who may not be able to afford it.

And a willing and able attitude is, truly, the only ABSOLUTE requirement. Even if you do get accepted into the program, if you don't have a willing and able attitude, you will find yourself on a plane back home pretty quickly.