At the University of Illinois, many students are provided with opportunities to study abroad through particular courses, the honors college, and the Study Abroad Office. Below, you will find stories from students discussing their experiences.
Over spring break, I got the privilege to travel with nine other amazing James Scholars from the University of Illinois to Belgium to study a different culture’s media. By the end of the week, I was pretty used to what was going to happen when we were meeting someone new. The drill was name, year, major, and for me a series of questions also, “I’m sorry, what did you say your major is? Agricultural Communications? What is that?”. It didn’t take them long to figure it out after I started replying with, “Can you explain your weird field layout to me?”.
The most noticeable thing about Belgium agriculture is the strange layout of the fields. Where in America, we try to utilize as much ground space as we can, Belgians are encouraged to put no less than three meters, and many of the field dividers were much, much larger than that, forming an odd checkerboard pattern of some fields in which it alternated between crops and grass. American farmers believe in crop rotation, but they generally rotate between two crops, not a crop and grass.
To me though, the most surprising thing wasn’t the layout, but the lack of knowledge. In a country one fifth of the size of Illinois, it fascinated me that people in the city could still be so oblivious to the country’s agriculture. Growing up with corn fields in your backyard, you don’t have much of a choice, but I also think that many people don’t understand just how much agriculture affects them. If you like to eat, drink, breathe, wear clothes, or enjoy a roof over your head, agriculture is for you. Agriculture is all around us, in every aspect of our lives.
Studying abroad was an amazing experience that I’ll never forget. Seeing another country and culture opened my mind but also further encouraged me to know that I was choosing the right major. Wherever I am, America or Belgium, you can find me agvocating for ag literacy.
One of my favorite events of the trip was the night we stayed at Los Calabazos Ecotourism Project. We had packed a small over night bag and prepared to spend the night at a small village in the mountains. Hiking our way down dirt paths, we journeyed to find the place we would be staying the night. Upon arriving we were assigned cabins for the night. The cabins had poor lighting, cracks around the walls, and cold slowly running water, but I could not have been more excited for the experience of staying in their real life setting. With a little time to spend before dinner, we ventured out to the river. To reach the waters edge, we had to cross a bridge over the river and then follow a path down to the water. The bridge was a hanging bridge with a bottom of wooden boards and sides of rope to hang on to. With cautious feet we carefully crossed the bridge as it swayed slowly with our movement. Most of us sat at the edge and dipped our feet into the startlingly cold water, but a couple of guys braved the cold and swam into the current. We cheered them on as they made their way to a rock to jump off of. Even from the sidelines it was an exciting experience all being together, appreciating the beauty around us, and watching that exhilarating jump into the river. As night began to fall, we made our way back across the bridge and gathered for dinner.
The temperature in the mountains was colder than we were used to, so after dinner we had all broke out our jackets for a little extra warmth. We prepared a bonfire, gathered sticks to roast marshmallows, and were joined by the local community kids. Although the language barrier prevented much conversation with them, we managed to stumble through the basics of name, age, and “how are you.” We shared our tasty marshmallow treats with them and enjoyed our time by the fire. Soon we were lead down a path to a small cabin shack where music was flooding the air. The inside was full of the local youth happily dancing away and inviting us to be their partners. One by one they rotated us in and helped us attempt the merengue and bachata dances. For the next few hours we spent the night dancing, laughing, and playing with they freely wondering roosters. Finally taking a break from the dancing to catch our breath, we wrapped up the night with some good conversation around the simmering fire. Eventually we returned to our cabins, crawled into bed draping the mosquito nets around us, and quickly fell to sleep after an eventful day.
The next morning we woke up to a chill in the air as we met for breakfast. After enjoying some coffee, hot chocolate, eggs, plantains, and toast, we gathered our things and prepared to depart. We hiked our way back up the hill through the mountains and returned to our awaiting bus. I loved the spending the night in the mountains because it felt like an escape into a different world. With no distractions from phones, television, or really any first world luxuries, I became more appreciative of my surroundings and enjoyed the bonds I was creating in these new friendships with each other as we experienced this new place and culture together.