By Deyanira Romo Rossell

Valdez visited the Golden Beach in Huangdao, Shadong. The beach is known
for sand which appears to sparkle like gold.

Chamoy apples offer a little taste of Mexico to anyone who bites into these tamarind and chili-covered treats. Twenty-one-year- old Nepthtali Valdez got the recipe just right, adding a real kick to his college experience at the University of the Incarnate Word. The UIW senior and his mom coated hundreds of the savory apples on a stick to fund study abroad trips to Greece and China.

“We sold them everywhere for $2 each,” Valdez said, fondly remembering how his parents worked tirelessly to help him achieve his dream to visit another country through the UIW Study Abroad Program.

While Nepthtali’s approach to funding travel and study in other countries is unique, his dream is shared by many students at UIW. Presently, 60 students a year and 20 per semester travel to other countries through the UIW Study Abroad Program. “More students can take advantage of this life-changing opportunity,” said Alanna Taylor, the study abroad coordinator at UIW. “The most important thing is planning. I think planning makes it possible, including fundraising, applying for scholarships, working and saving money and keeping your grades up.”

Taylor is a veteran of the study abroad experience, having spent a year in Venezuela, even teaching English there for seven months, then in Korea for a year and Japan for two years. “I really miss being abroad and traveling, so if I can’t do it, the next best thing is traveling vicariously through the students at UIW. It makes my job very rewarding,” said Taylor.

Instead of looking at the price tag, Taylor wants more students to look at the possibilities as Valdez did when making the decision to take his first study abroad trip to Greece.

“We’ve had students apply for scholarships and pursue other avenues to afford study abroad, some more aggressively than others. I don’t think we’ve ever had a student who has done fundraising, so Nephtali’s story is really amazing. Some students see a price tag and get discouraged. Nephtali looked at the price tag and said ‘okay, how can I do this?’” said Taylor. “In Neph’s case, his family was a key part by doing the fundraising with him,” she added.

There were setbacks in his quest for raising money for his trip to China, his second study abroad experience. Valdez held a barbecue plate fundraiser that broke even. He decided to cancel the trip, but Taylor and his parents convinced him to keep working toward his goal, teaching Valdez a very important lesson which he carries with him today.

“My recommendation is to go for it and never give up. Anything is possible if you just set your mind to it,” he said with a big grin.

Considered a national treasure, seeing this panda in Weihai, Shadong
was one of the highlights of Valdez’ trip.

While financial concerns are the biggest challenge to students who want to study abroad, there are other obstacles that Taylor works through with both students and parents, especially first-time flyers. “Many of our students are from Texas. Some have never been on a plane or even outside of Texas, so that is a source of a lot of apprehension,” Taylor said.

So for students and parents who are nervous, Valdez is the perfect study abroad ambassador. With his fun demeanor and adventurous spirit, he represents the UIW Study Abroad Program through public speaking and by talking to fellow students, allaying their nervousness.

“I would do it again. It is totally worth it,” said Valdez.

China and Greece are among the 39 countries with 120 sister schools that students at UIW can visit. During this fall 2012 semester, nine students are studying at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy.

“Italy is our most popular study abroad destination,” said Taylor.

Dr. Javier E. Lozano is director of Sister School Partnerships at UIW and a huge fan of the chamoy apple, certainly because of the sweet and spicy taste, but mainly because it is a symbol of how creativity and ingenuity can truly bear fruit.

“The apples were delicious. First and foremost Valdez had a really good attitude about making his trip and study abroad experience a reality. Even though his major challenge was financial he was able to overcome it by reaching out to other people and his family and by working hard to fund his trip,” said Lozano. “Everyone who has heard his story knows that anything is possible through determination and hard work.”

Because of students like Valdez, Lozano is even more zealous in his pursuit of exciting study abroad opportunities for students at UIW. “When Nephtali first came into my office, he was like every other college student, but when he came back from studying abroad, he was a lot more aware of world issues and also what is going on in the United States. It’s so rewarding to see how these experiences help them grow as students and overall in their career ambitions,” said Lozano, who also studied abroad in college.

Valdez will savor the unique combination of chamoy apples for years to come, grateful that a little bit of his Mexican heritage was the ticket to explore other cultures.