By Crystale Lopez
When Alejandra Echavarria, international business major at the University of the Incarnate Word, recruited her fellow classmates and friends -accounting major Alexa Serna, economics major Mario Canales, and nutrition major Andrea Cervantes-to study abroad at John Cabot University in Rome, she had no idea of the adventure that lay ahead for each of them.
“I always wanted to travel to Europe but was never able to do so,” Echavarria said. “When I read that I could travel abroad as part of my major, I got really interested and started talking to my friends about going too.”
The students connected with Alanna Taylor, study abroad coordinator at UIW, who guided them through selecting a school, planning and preparation. “I thought it was more complicated, but UIW made the process really easy for us and helped make it all happen,” Cervantes said.
“Out of all the schools available, we chose John Cabot because it is very well located to travel around Italy and the surrounding countries,” Echavarria said. “Another UIW student had also shared how amazing his experience was while he was there.”
So the group packed up for a semester abroad from January to May unaware of the historical events set to take place.
“My roommate woke me up in late February telling me the pope had resigned,” Canales said. “The pope resigning was something that had not occurred in hundreds of years and we were just 15 minutes away from where it was all happening.”
Canales explained the group gathered with thousands of others at the Vatican, carrying Mexican flags to share their heritage with everyone.
“There was so much going on and many questions as to why Pope Benedict resigned and the television stations like CNN and Univision started pulling us aside to interview us,” Echavarria said. “We were famous for a day!”
Not only were the students in Rome for the historical announcement but also for the election process to appoint the new pope. “The day Pope Francis was elected we stood watching for the smoke,” Echavarria said. “First we thought we saw black smoke, but then saw it was white and everyone went crazy yelling, ‘There is white smoke! We have a new pope!’”
As for the day Pope Francis was inaugurated, the students agreed being there felt like a dream. “It was such an emotional day,” Serna said. “I just could not believe we were right there watching it all happen before our eyes.”
Cervantes said they all had the rare opportunity to see Pope Benedict and Pope Francis extraordinarily close-up. “We saw them riding in the popemobile,” she said. “Pope Francis did not want the protective shields around him, so he was just right there in front of us.”
Echavarria said being there in person made each historical event much more meaningful. “We were there from the beginning of the resignation, through the selection process, and then saw Pope Francis come out for the first time,” she said. “It was amazing.”
Although the historic papal events were a surprise, what didn’t come as a surprise was the travel the students experienced while studying in Rome.
Serna, Cervantes, and Echavarria started their trip in Budapest and continued on to Vienna, Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam, and Brussels. “One of the most memorable experiences was getting to ski and skydive over the Swiss Alps,” Serna said. “We jumped out of a plane about 15,000 feet with the temperature at negative 20 degrees.”
“Seeing mountain after mountain covered in white was breathtaking,” Cervantes said.
Visiting Marrakesh in Morocco also proved to be a unique voyage all its own. “We went camel riding, canyoning, saw the spice markets, and had dinner with a local family who made bread and honey for us,” Serna said. “The culture was very different from any country we visited.”
The students agreed their time in Rome enhanced their overall learning experience at UIW. Back at home, Cervantes is taking Italian language classes.
“Living in Rome and experiencing the language first-hand has really helped me grasp the language,” Cervantes said.
“I got to see world events happen before my eyes and see them from a perspective other than my own and the way I was brought up,” Canales said. “I had never done anything like that before and now I cannot wait to go back.”
For more information on the UIW Study Abroad Program, visit www.uiw.edu/studyabroad.