Larry LaRue: Oh, the places a student can go

Jean McCord is finishing her bucket list with a UWT-sponsored trip to Ecuador

Staff WriterMay 28, 2014 

Jean McCord comforts Riley, who is prone to seizures, as Brodie waits nearby Tuesday in the living room of her North End Tacoma home. McCord will study with a University of Washington Tacoma language immersion and service program in Ecuador next month, 50 years after going to Italy to study.

PETER HALEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

College has been good to Jean McCord.

When she arrived at Macalester College in Minnesota, she was a freshman with a scholarship — and a Georgia accent so thick her speech teacher couldn’t understand her.

Still, McCord earned a bachelor’s degree there and, in 1964, took part in a subsidized summer work abroad program in Italy.

“I was a naive kid from Georgia,” McCord said. “It cost me $25 to register, and I wound up spending 15 months abroad.”

Back home in the states, she went to the University of New Hampshire for a master’s in English. She began a career as a fundraiser that began in New Hampshire, jumped to Alfred University in New York and in 1979 to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma.

Now 70, retired and living with a pair of rescue dogs, Riley and Brodie, McCord is cutting down her bucket list.

“There were two places in the world I wanted to go, places I’d seen on Channel 9 — Africa and the Galapagos Islands,” she said. “I got to Africa in 2010. I’m leaving for Ecuador and the Galapagos next month.”

All that trip to South America required was a return to college.

“A friend told me about the program at the University of Washington where for $25 you could audit any class taught at UW or UW Tacoma, up to two classes a quarter,” she said. “I took Spanish at UWT and planned to go to the Galapagos in the fall.”

Instead, in her third quarter taking Spanish, she heard about and applied for the UWT Spanish Immersion Program in Quito, Ecuador — and was accepted.

So on June 14, 50 years after going to Italy to study abroad, McCord will fly to South America to immerse herself in Spanish. For five weeks, she’ll live with an Ecuadorian family and speak nothing but their language.

The trip will include 25 hours a week of Spanish classes, three mornings a week volunteering at a local nonprofit, and weekend field trips. McCord will pay $5,780 for the five-week program.

Oh, and after that, her itinerary has her spending five days in the jungles of Ecuador and 11 more in the Galapagos Islands.

And when she returns to Tacoma?

“I hope to be fluent enough in Spanish to volunteer here at home,” McCord said. “Maybe at the Detention Center, Tacoma Community House, or the Crystal Judson Family Justice Center, perhaps helping with legal or medical matters.”

Turns out, after bouncing around much of her life, the Northwest captured McCord’s heart.

“When I first came to work with UPS, someone recommended I live in Seattle — I guess they thought, coming from New York, I’d want a bigger city,” McCord said. “I loved Tacoma. I’ve lived here for 35 years.”

The year she turned 50, McCord became a Pierce County reserve deputy, the only woman among the ranks at the time.

“My second night on duty, we were looking for a murder suspect near American Lake, and my partner told me to stay with the car and hold anyone trying to leave the area at gunpoint,” she said.

“I was standing there when I heard rustling in the brush and out pops a possum. It charges me. I thought it must have rabies and almost shot it.

“I didn’t shoot, and later heard they don’t get rabies and that it was probably blinded by the lights and never even saw me.”

McCord served for three years. In 1992, she opened a consulting agency that helped organizations raise funds.

In retirement, there were rescue dogs, including Riley, who’s on medication for seizures. When one begins, McCord drops to the floor beside him, comforting him as best she can.

“I’ve always loved animals,” she said, which explains why she had Africa on her bucket list.

That trip, in 2010, was made possible by her alma mater, Macalester College, which gave alumni a chance to travel to Kenya.

“I saw all the things I’d only watched on PBS,” McCord said. “At one point we pulled up alongside a vehicle that couldn’t move. A lion cub had crawled beneath it because it was the only shady spot in sight. We saw a leopard in a tree, elephants, rhinos, hippos, a serval.

“I took my first balloon ride there and flew over herds of zebra.”

Just another reward of a college education.

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@ thenewstribune.com

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