Humans of UK: Dr. Rebecca Oliphant gives students a global perspective through travel


Travis Fannon

Rebecca Oliphant poses for a portrait on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, at the Gatton School of Business and Economics in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Travis Fannon | Staff

Liberty Gilbert, Reporter

Rebecca Oliphant, or as her students know her, Dr. O, hasn’t always had a passion for traveling. She didn’t go on any trips abroad in college or do much traveling at all until she was about 40 years old. Now, she loves going on adventures and being there to witness students going on their first trips.

Oliphant has a doctorate in philosophy and is a lecturer for UK’s Department of Marketing and Supply Chain. Before coming to UK, she taught digital marketing at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Vietnam, where she lived for a year.

“When I see a student who has never gone overseas before … when you see their eyes and their expressions the first time that they’ve seen the Great Wall of China … I just get such a thrill out of that, I just love seeing that and that’s why I keep doing that,” Oliphant said.

From visiting Austria and Germany, to living in Vietnam for a year, Oliphant said she has been to a lot of interesting places but none as impactful as her time participating in the Semester at Sea program.

During her 110 days on a boat, Oliphant experienced her semester with 500 students from all over the world and Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a special guest.

Oliphant said Tutu spoke his mind and had a vast amount of integrity. During their time on the boat, Tutu wasn’t very interested in spending time with the professors as much as he wanted to talk to students and be involved with them.

Tutu even sat in the front row at talent shows, where Oliphant remembered him laughing and cheering students on.

“What Archbishop Desmond Tutu taught me was, you know, don’t take yourself too seriously … laugh a lot. And I try to do that with students,” Oliphant said.

While Oliphant’s trips are all in safe places and nothing bad has happened to a student on her watch, traveling abroad isn’t always smooth sailing. About 10 years ago while on a trip to Japan, Oliphant, her husband and 13 students were enjoying their day at Tokyo Disney, when there was an earthquake.

No one was injured, but Oliphant called it a “traumatic” event.

Everyone found each other and then spent three days in an airport as Oliphant and her husband tried to get students home. She said having a positive outlook, being flexible and focusing on the fact that they were all okay got them through the event, but they share a special connection after going through that together.

Besides the one instance, Oliphant said every other trip has gone well, even if she sometimes takes students to hard places, such as The Killing Fields in Cambodia. She also said she thinks the trips she will take with UK students will only get better because of the support she has planning them.

Oliphant also started to get to know her students one on one before each trip, which she said can make for a more enjoyable trip together.

Her next trip will be this coming May for three weeks in Innsbruck, Austria. She is also creating a Facebook page for those students’ families to be able to see pictures and updates as students explore and experience life abroad.

For any student traveling soon, whether it be with her or not, Oliphant offered words of advice.

“(You) have to be flexible. You can’t swim against the tide, just float with it and sooner or later you can get off,” she said.