Several Washington State University students flew to Uruguay to spend their spring break working on farms, constructing a building made of mud, learning to work with bamboo as a viable construction material, and exploring sustainable livelihoods.
The trip was the centerpiece of a semester-long course where students researched and learned about Uruguay. They explored some of their own career and personal interests before leaving, then reflected on their experiences and how those experiences will impact them going forward.
“The emphasis is on transformational and experiential learning,” said Jessica Goldberger, a professor in WSU’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and trip co-leader. “It’s not a traditional class. We do a lot of self-reflection to help students understand their own cultural values, biases, and beliefs and understand the same in others.”
The students agreed that the trip was life-altering.
“The only thing I knew about Uruguay was soccer,” said Alejandro Borges, a senior agricultural technology and production management major. “I never knew about study abroad or thought I’d be able to do something like this before I came to WSU. This trip got me out of my comfort zone, and now I want to go everywhere.”
Borges was the only fluent Spanish speaker in the class, giving him a distinctive experience.
“I didn’t need a translator, so I could talk more personally with the people we met,” said Borges, who grew up in Yakima, Wash. “I made unique connections by talking about farming or soccer with the locals, who were so nice and welcoming.”
The in-country portion of the course took place entirely over WSU’s spring break, but those eight days were packed with many experiences. Much of that happened through a partnership Goldberger established with a local couple who have WSU ties.
Goldberger taught Ashley Colby in a graduate course when Colby was getting a PhD in sociology at WSU. Colby now lives in Uruguay with her husband, Patrick Fitzgerald, where they run the Rizoma Field School. The couple hosts student groups from the U.S.,helping arrange visits to farms and sustainable building projects in the South American country.
Before the trip, Colby and Fitzgerald met the class via Zoom, so the students would have familiar faces when they arrived.
“This fell in my lap,” Goldberger said. “I’d never been to Uruguay, and I don’t speak Spanish. To have Ashley reach out and help with everything gave the students a much better experience than anything we could have come up with in Pullman.”
Having that class experience and Rizoma Field School’s on-the-ground expertise made a huge difference to the students.
“The class really prepared us for how to experience the culture,” said Ryotaro Colon, a junior environmental science major from Everett, Wash. “It helped shape my approach and let me know what to look for. It made the actual trip much more rewarding.”
The class also helped the students bond.
“I’ve had friends talk about study abroad and how they form close friendships in-country, but when they get home it’s almost like it never happened,” Colon said. “But having known each other in class all semester, then bonding even more in Uruguay, I think that will be different. I’ll be friends with them for a long time.”
Goldberger hopes to repeat the trip in the future, allowing more students to have such an immersive learning experience.
Another benefit to students was cost: They were responsible for the course fees and airfare. Everything else was covered.
“That funding was hugely beneficial,” said Holly Henning, the other faculty co-lead and a crop and soil sciences associate professor. “Between unspent funds during the COVID-19 pandemic, donor support, and a CAHNRS diversity, equity, and inclusion grant, we were able to help every student keep costs down for the trip.”
That funding ultimately helped local farmers and families.
“We worked our butts off at some of those farms,” said Henning, who is also WSU’s Swantz Distinguished Professor of Teaching and Learning. “I was so proud to see these students jump right in and help farmers get so much work done. It was inspiring and transformative to work alongside community members and students. I think we all took something back that will help make our lives simpler and more community-focused.”