Those who call Colorado's Grand Valley home have probably heard about its “curse.” Local lore says that unless they collect sand from specific locales to break an Ute curse, residents who dare to leave the valley are destined to return one day.
Whether that’s a blessing or a curse, mechanical engineering student Ross Fischer accepted it as a personal challenge to expose himself to new and sometimes uncomfortable experiences during his college career. That desire led him to Fairbanks, Alaska; Bangkok, Thailand; Kathmandu, Nepal, and soon, to Tanzania with the Peace Corps.
“Maybe the whole ‘Grand Valley curse’ thing is at the root of my curiosity, but I was really interested in experiencing different cultures and learning about the world,” the Colorado native said.
Fischer, a graduate of Fruita Monument High School, grew up in Castle Rock and moved to Grand Junction in sixth grade. His dad and brother are both engineers, and he enjoyed math, so the CMU-CU Engineering Partnership Program was a good fit, he said.
The partnership, launched in 2013, allows students to earn an engineering degree from CU Boulder through courses completed entirely in Grand Junction. Students take their first two years of courses at Colorado Mesa University and the remainder from CU Boulder faculty who live permanently on the Western Slope. The program currently offers mechanical and civil engineering programs, with electrical and computer engineering launching there this fall.
Fischer said he appreciated the small class sizes–about 25 students will graduate from the program this spring–and the opportunity for close interaction with faculty members and peers, along with his family nearby.
As a sophomore, Fischer decided to study abroad in spring 2016 in Bangkok, a location he chose specifically for its non-English-speaking majority. He was able to apply his scholarships to study abroad at Thammasat University.
“I decided to go to Thailand because it would provide me the most unique and different experience, and I guess I was looking for growth in that sense,” he said.
Moving from a city of about 60,000 to a city of more than 8 million was an exercise in adaptability for Fischer. He and his new friends spent time outside of class visiting historical sites, exploring the nightlife, and traveling to surrounding cities and scenic islands to the south.
His Thai roommate introduced him to his family, giving Fischer a window to participate in a traditional Buddhist house-blessing ceremony during a family gathering.
After the semester ended, Fischer organized a trip to Nepal through a website called Workaway, a cultural exchange program that pairs hosts with people interested in volunteering and working across the globe.
After a long, bumpy bus ride to the remote village of Mahadev Besi and amid language barriers and no cell service, Fischer managed to locate his host and begin his workaway. In exchange for free accommodations, Fischer worked at the host’s terraced farm for three weeks, tending livestock, installing piping and occasionally visiting the local primary school.
“Once I got back, it’s hard to solidify what exactly changed,” Fischer said. “I think just spending time in a new culture and being open to new experiences is really important. And when you travel, you always have travel problems, so it really helps you learn how to take things as they come and keep climbing over obstacles to see what’s over the next hill.”
After his return, Fischer connected with Professor Gigi Richard to conduct research on hydrology and stream management and soon hit the road again. In summer 2017, he traveled to the University of Alaska for a research program at the International Arctic Research Center. His research efforts at CMU before and after the summer in Alaska stood out, Richard said.
“Ross’ clever solutions, technical competence, patience, willingness to be uncomfortable and personable nature are all valuable attributes in a field assistant, and I will miss him greatly when he graduates,” Richard said.
As he prepared for graduation, Fischer again sought a new experience. He applied and was accepted as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania, where he’ll learn Swahili and teach high school math for the next two years.
“He is excited about the potential to bring all of his experiences together to develop engineering solutions that solve daily challenges in the community where he will live,” said Associate Professor Ginger Ferguson. “And he is looking forward to figuring out who he will become after the Peace Corps and how his engineering skills can help others.”
In recognition of his efforts, Fischer was named the 2018 Outstanding Graduate for International Engagement by the College of Engineering and Applied Science.
After graduation, he plans to travel through Spain, Portugal and Germany to see family and friends. And on July 8, he’ll travel to Washington, D.C., en route to Tanzania for the next big adventure – curse or no curse.
“Having new experiences and trying to grow in places that make you uncomfortable is a pretty crucial part of life, I feel like,” Fischer said.