Honors Course Detours to South America After Cuba Trip Hits Roadblock

A group of two dozen students pose for a photo in front of a UMass Lowell banner Image by courtesy
Honors College students helped paint a UMass Lowell banner while learning about the cultural significance of street art during their study abroad trip to Chile over winter break.

By Ed Brennen

Karolina Kania is “terrified” of the ocean, so the senior nursing major was not thrilled to see “surfing lesson” on the itinerary for her Honors study abroad trip to Chile over winter break.

“I did not want to do it at first,” Kania says of the lesson, which was part of her group’s visit with the Valpo Surf Project, a non-governmental organization that uses surfing to help underprivileged and at-risk youth from the Chilean port city of Valparaíso.

But Kania says she went to Chile with a “say yes to anything” mindset, so she swallowed her fear (along with a little salt water) and got on the surfboard.

“I was so proud of myself,” the Boston native says. “It was so much fun being able to let loose and try something new with such an amazing group that just kept cheering everyone on.”

Kania was among 21 Honors students who participated in the 10-day, three-credit study abroad course in Chile — a program led by Visiting Prof. Julian Zabalbeascoa, communications and study abroad coordinator for the Honors College.

The students were supposed to visit Cuba over winter break, but the trip was canceled unexpectedly because of logistical issues in Havana. With the help of partner organization Academic Programs International, Zabalbeascoa quickly pivoted and arranged a culturally immersive experience in South America instead.

A male and female student prepare to slide down a sand dune while several other students look on Image by courtesy
Instead of sledding in snow during winter break, UML students got to try sledding down sand dunes in Chile.
“The students’ flexibility was an incredible thing to behold,” says Zabalbeascoa, who has been leading Honors programs in Cuba and Spain for several years but had never been to Chile. “I’ve noticed that since the pandemic, students who sign up for study abroad programs are determined to experience all that they can.”

Before traveling, each student gave a virtual presentation to the group about Chile. Zabalbeascoa created a list of 28 possible topics that included the 1973 Chilean coup d'état, the street art scene in Valparaíso and the country’s response to its frequent earthquakes (the group experienced a 5.6-magnitude quake while there).

Michael Feinblatt, a junior environmental engineering major from Framingham, Massachusetts, says he paid close attention to the environmental state of the country, particularly during a tour of an organic and biodynamic vineyard in the town of Casablanca.

“It was refreshing to see Chilean farms using highly sustainable practices,” says Feinblatt, who hopes to apply some of those lessons in his future career. “Knowing what people around the world are doing to be sustainable can help set a guideline for what can be done close to home.”

Seven young men and women pose with surf boards on a beach Image by courtesy
Honors students took a surfing lesson as part of their visit to the Valpo Surf Project, an NGO in the Chilean town of Concon.
On a visit to Parque Cultural de Valparaíso, an artist community established in a former prison, students learned how the vibrant street art and urban murals scene has helped make the city a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

“In the United States, graffiti is seen as a crime. But in Chile, it’s a way that they are able to express themselves and their feelings,” says Feinblatt, who also participated in an Honors study abroad trip to Madrid, Spain, last year.

Following a street art tour, students got to create their own spray-paint artwork — and help create a Rowdy the River Hawk banner on cellophane.

In addition to visiting the Presidential Palace and Museum of Memory and Human Rights in the capital city of Santiago, students explored sand dunes and attended a guest lecture on Chilean poetry and literature.

“Being able to earn course credits while exploring a new country was a win-win for me,” says Julia Jordan, a senior psychology major from Lynn, Massachusetts, who also participated in an Honors program in San Sebastián, Spain, in 2021. “Studying abroad allows for so much personal growth. The independence, maturity and social skills will benefit me in my future career.”

A group of two dozen students pose for a photo in front of the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile Image by courtesy
Students pose for a group photo in front of the Presidential Palace during their walking tour of Santiago, Chile.
Gavin Sadler, a junior double-majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, had traveled overseas before but was taking advantage of UML’s International Experiences and Study Abroad program for the first time.

“I wanted to connect with new people from UML,” says Sadler, a native of Lynn who enjoyed the “gorgeous views and deep history” of the vineyard. “This trip, along with my other independent trips abroad, show me how big the world is and all the different places one can go to study and work.”

Because this was the first UML Honors group to visit Chile, Zabalbeascoa says students adopted the motto “Honored to be the first.”

“But there needs to be another one after this, because there’s a lot more I’d like to include,” says Zabalbeascoa, who may alternate winter trips between Cuba and Chile.

Kania, who also participated in the Madrid program last year, says her study abroad experiences at UML have made her want to become a traveling nurse someday.

“I do not want to stay in one place forever,” she says. “I want to see as much of the world as possible.”

Even the ocean.