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Learning Beyond Borders: Honors program brings the classroom to Peru

By Jenna Pizzi

students in peru

Honors students at Machu Picchu in Peru. Photos by Christine Flanagan.

Floating along in a quiet riverboat and listening to the sound of animals in the Amazon rainforest around them, 12 students in University of the Sciences’ Honors Program had a rare opportunity for self-reflection as they immersed themselves into a foreign culture and foreign environment.

The 10-day trip to Peru capped a year-long course of study by the students enrolled in the first and second year of the Honors Program. This year’s humanities curriculum included studying the history and socio-politics of Latin America, their relationship with nature and the challenges of creating a culture of sustainability.

“The program is a really transformative experience, the kind that will help our students become well rounded professionals in whatever field they choose,” said Christine Flanagan, associate professor of English at USciences, who also attended this year’s trip as a faculty advisor.

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Honors students climb aboard a boat cruise along the Amazon basin.

Each year the Honors Program-made up of students who are nominated by admissions for their academic achievement, leadership, and service-invites students to travel to a different country which ties into their curriculum.  Often there isn’t a direct link to the science-related fields that the undergraduates are studying day in and day out, but Dr. Stephen Moelter, director of the University Honors Program, said the trip broadens students’ perspectives and provides an experience that these students wouldn’t otherwise receive.

Shivsai Gongalla BS’19, who hopes to eventually go to medical school, had an eye-opening experience traveling to Peru and said it helped him to recognize the role of art in culture and architecture around the world.

“The one thing I never fully gained during my time in all these classes is an appreciation for the power of art. I had read many times over how Christians used art to tell stories about Christ and to convert the local people, but those lessons never had any impact on me because I had never experienced it first hand,” said Gongalla. “In the Basilica in Cusco it became very easy for me to understand and gain an appreciation for the power of art.”

students in peru

Shivsai Gongalla BS’19 poses for a photo at Machu Picchu.

In addition to Cusco, the group traveled to the Peruvian capital Lima, the Incan Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu, and to a remote Amazon lodge 90 minutes by boat from Puerto Maldonado. At the lodge they participated in wildlife tours and learned about the Amazon River Basin jungle ecosystem and the struggle to preserve it.

“Machu Picchu was a fabulous day because a few of us were able to stay late at the ruins and it was really miraculous to be there after everyone else left,” said Dr. Moelter.

Dr. Moelter said the students, like many who visit the site, were in awe at the ability of the Incans to build such a structure on the 8,000-foot peak of a mountain in the Andes.

To help students process their thoughts and experiences, they were required to keep a travel journal, something many were hesitant to embrace at first.

“Writing helps them to be active learners,” said Flanagan. “It forces them to ask questions about the sights they are experiencing: ‘Who is responsible for this?’ And ‘Why does it matter today?’ Your travel journal is a record of your own experience. It becomes valuable evidence for whatever conclusions you draw from this world.”

students in peru

The honors group at the Maras Salt Flats.

Gongalla said while he didn’t always enjoy the long process of writing journal entries, when reading the journal alongside his video blogs of the trip, he is glad to have such rich reminders of his experience.

Gongalla said he isn’t sure yet how the trip will influence his future career, but Flanagan said that she doesn’t expect the students to see the impact just yet.

“It is about learning to start valuing your own experience,” she said. “There is a kind of empathy you develop for the future from experiences and feelings like these, when you are forced out of your element. I believe that students who have these kind of experiences make more successful alumni.”

“It is not about a grade. It is not about your career,” Flanagan said. “This is about expanding your horizons.”

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