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DC grad finds wellness inspiration overseas
Jan. 11, 2016

By Cody Benjamin

DASSEL, MN – Courtney Smith, the daughter of Rory and Peggy Smith of Dassel, is no stranger to helping people live healthy lives.

Since graduating from Dassel-Cokato High School in 2012, she’s filled her schedule to the brim with volunteer work, putting into action the concepts of health, wellness and nutrition that she’s studied at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

On top of keeping herself in shape as a member of UW-Stout’s cross country and track and field teams, Smith has dabbled in everything from assisting with the Special Olympics and serving as manager of a Snap Fitness to working with the Mayo Clinic’s Camp Wabi, a program for kids struggling with obesity.

One of her most prominent platforms as an advocate for healthy living, however, just happened to come in the most unfamiliar of places.

From May to June 2014, Smith spent a combined four weeks in Ireland and Scotland, expanding her journey to a hopeful career in corporate wellness to another level.

The idea of navigating foreign territory, made possible through UW-Stout’s study abroad program, was hardly a hurdle for Smith, a four-time winner of the Chancellor’s Award for Academic Excellence. Neither was the fact that she was also the trip’s only non-education major to travel overseas.

“I just really like traveling,” she said. “And my roommate in the dorms at the time had studied abroad in Italy and really liked it and kind of pushed me to look into stuff.”

Smith also said her mom had encouraged her to take a mission trip in high school, but sports commitments got in the way of potential getaways. When the possibility of traveling during the summer came to fruition, then, it was music to her whole family’s ears.

Foreign fitness
Above all for Smith, exposing herself to a culture unlike her own was, in many ways, just additional fuel for an appreciation of health and nutrition.

She wasted no time getting involved during her time outside the borders. In her first week abroad, she was thrust into a hands-on role at Newbattle Community High School near the Scotland capital of Edinburgh and had an early opportunity to learn about the area’s stances on health and wellness.

“We were in schools, and to make that applicable to my major, I got to be in a [physical education] department there,” Smith said.

Alongside fellow students and four of the school’s teachers, she watched or partook in everything from basketball to table tennis.

Smith began by teaching Newbattle students softball, which she played for UW-Stout at the time, and it didn’t take long for her to realize that there were stark differences in the way the country prioritized fitness, among other things.

Adjusting to the European culture, from its laid-back pace to its distinctive slang, was one thing. Understanding and analyzing its standards of health was quite another.

“They literally had, like, three softballs, two gloves and a bat,” she said. “And the students weren’t required to wear a helmet or anything. The safety was just way different. They had an AstroTurf field outside of their complex that they were so proud of . . . and around here, we’re getting away from AstroTurf [because] it kills the body.”

With soccer being the obvious sport of attention in Europe, Smith said there was plenty of emphasis on keeping fútbol players active. But even aside from the safety differences, it was clear to her in everything from other athletes’ skill levels to the way certain foods were prepared that the need for guidance on safe and healthy choices extends well beyond America.

“The health industry is really skyrocketing right now,” she said. “And over there, it wasn’t as much of a concern.”

After about three weeks in Scotland, Smith spent her final week abroad in Ireland, where she earned most of her multicultural credits alongside the education students. Amidst her first 10k run, bus rides through the mountains, and a dip in the famed Loch Ness, she had time to reflect on how even the drastically diverse lifestyles encountered on the trip could serve as inspiration.

Whether it was seeing firsthand the different perceptions of fitness and food, such as how an abundance of fresh produce could essentially be cancelled out by a lack of healthier alternatives to things as simple as butter, Smith was blatantly reminded how invaluable her education on exercise, dietetics, and nutrition can be.

“They have way less variety and access [to alternatives],” she said. “I feel like they’re very behind. Even though Europe doesn’t have the obesity epidemic . . . there’s things I’d change, being a health and wellness major.”

A health-focused future
And change – positive change – is exactly what Smith hopes to implement as she nears graduation and prepares to embark on a job search.

Balancing schoolwork with her own responsibilities as an athlete, she intends to explore the west metro area’s corporate wellness industry in the coming months. But she also knows that her experiences abroad have at least piqued her interest in spreading healthy influences on an even larger scale.

“I would love to be able to find a job that travels around and helps people in different areas,” she said.

It remains to be seen if the traveling aspect will play a part in whichever opportunity Smith lands after completing school. But if her track record is any indication, there should be no doubt about her ability to help people.

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