SARASOTA, Fla. (Sept. 13, 2018) – From craggy hillside dwellings to misty rainforests to colorful street festivals, USF Sarasota-Manatee students experienced a profusion of natural and cultural attractions this summer, crisscrossing the globe as part of the campus’ study abroad program.
Each summer, USF System students visit far-flung destinations to explore different environments and cultures. But it isn’t all fun and relaxation as the students are required to take classes associated with their academic majors. Still, for those who sign up, study abroad can be an experience unlike any other.
“I know it sounds like a cliché, but it really was a trip of a lifetime,” said Miriam “Maggie” Dougherty, a business administration student who studied in Italy for six weeks.
Between classes in finance and business law, she explored Florence and boarded trains for side trips to Venice, Milan, Positano, Pisa and Cinque Terre, the five picturesque villages nestled above the Mediterranean.
The 20-year-old junior said she was thrilled at the prospect of traveling without her family for the first time after trips to Bermuda and China as a child. Thanks to the Clyde G. Nixon International Business Scholarship, the trip became a reality.
“It basically paid for my air fare,” said Dougherty, who spent a week in Rome before heading to Florence for more studies.
Since its inception in 2010, the Nixon Scholarship has helped more than a dozen student travelers. Scholarship namesake Clyde Nixon, former chairman of Sun Hydraulics Corp., was a firm believer in global travel as a way to enrich students’ perspectives. Before he died in 2007, he served as a member of USFSM’s Campus Board and chaired the Community Leadership Council.
His wife, Joan, also lauds the benefits of international travel. A luncheon in support of the Nixon Scholarship is scheduled noon Friday at the Art Ovation Hotel in downtown Sarasota.
Dougherty said she was “incredibly grateful” to receive the scholarship. Her trip started in early May. After a week in Rome for a three-credit course on Italian culture, she traveled to the Florence University of the Arts.
USF professors led the business classes, which fit perfectly with her academic program. They ran Monday through Thursday, which left plenty to time for Dougherty and her roommates, students from USF and Robert Morris University Illinois in Chicago, to explore the renaissance city.
Most days after class, the group sought out trattorias with outdoor seating where they could talk, eat and observe Florentine culture. On weekends, they headed to the train station for more diligent explorations, often with Dougherty as tour director, planning which spots to hit next.
The group quickly adopted a strategy, establishing a base at a large city then taking day trips: “When we did Amalfi, we chose Salerno as our base and we did a trip to Positano, and the next day we went to Pompeii.”
“I was a little nervous at first, but once I got there and knowing I had friends to go with, I wasn’t hesitant to travel,” Dougherty said. “We took the train everywhere. I’m sure I could have done it by myself, but it’s more fun with other people. You feel more secure.”
They also stopped at Modena and holiday hotspot Lake Como. Surviving on pasta, pizza, bread, salad and prosciutto, Dougherty said she never experienced a bad meal and was fortunate that someone spoke English everywhere she went.
“For me, it was about meeting all these girls and having these experiences to share,” she said. “It kind of bonds you in a way because you’re all taking in these experiences together.”
Bitten deeply by the travel bug, Dougherty said she’s already mulling her next trip, perhaps to Ireland next summer.
“I would say to anybody even thinking about studying abroad, it’s an opportunity of a lifetime, and especially for me, I grew up in kind of a small town, and you’re seeing a whole new way of life,” she said.
“I think it’s important to open your mind to new experiences and new things and not stay in your own comfortable bubble where you know what to expect every day,” said Dougherty. “I think it’s important to take a chance and see what happens. This was a huge leap to do this trip and I came out really grateful for taking that chance.”
Merida, side trips inspire love of culture
Also taking a chance was Madison Koch. Like Dougherty, the 18-year-old set out without knowing anyone but soon bonded with the other students in her group.
A sophomore with a minor in Spanish and Latin American studies, Koch signed up for a five-week Spanish-language immersion program at the Habla Spanish Language School and Education Center in Merida, Mexico.
Led by USFSM Spanish instructor Dr. Roberto Jiménez-Arroyo, the program involved a half-day of language and cultural instruction. The students stayed with Mexican families within walking distance of the school. After class, they explored the colonial-era city, colorfully arrayed with cafes, museums, open-air markets, a central square and the vast Catedral de Mérida, constructed in the 16th Century.
“I always wanted to learn Spanish and heard about this opportunity to get further instruction and I just jumped the opportunity,” she said.
Weekends saw organized bus trips to places like the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza as well as modern cities of Valladolid, Campeche and Izamal. But of all her experiences, the most enjoyable didn’t involve an itinerary but occurred after class on weekdays when the students were free to wander Merida’s markets, narrow side streets and large central square, absorbing the sights and sounds, including street musicians and vaqueria dancers dressed in traditional garb.
“I liked how relaxed the city is,” Koch said. “The city was constructed around a city square, and it’s common for people to come out and spend time there. On Sundays, a lot of the main streets are closed for what they call Merida en Domingo, and people ride bikes along the main square, and there’s a big market set up in the city center and you can shop for clothes and other things, souvenirs, wooden carvings, necklaces, toys. I liked how the culture was out in the street.”
Koch said her Spanish greatly improved. She had traveled to Guatemala with a mission group in high school, but didn’t stay long enough, unlike the Merida trip, to truly delve into the culture.
“I just fell in love with Merida, the sense of community you feel. It will always be in my heart,” she said. “I was a little sad to leave. Getting back to America was a culture shock.”
Getting back to nature in Costa Rica
Fellow student Belen Garcia, 21, can relate, experiencing the most intensive immersion program ever in her life. Along with three other USFSM students, Garcia traveled to Costa Rica for 10 days to visit the La Selva and Las Cruces biological stations.
Led by organic chemistry instructor Dr. Edie Banner, the students explored life as field biologists, quietly traipsing through rainforests and upland areas to observe exotic species. The trip started in late-June in capital city San Jose, where, a day after arriving, the group set out in a van to the La Selva station six hours northeast at the foot of the Braulio Carrillo National Park.
“We were mainly doing research,” said Garcia, a biology major and aspiring dentist. “We stayed in cabins. Mine had three bunk beds. On the other side of the wall were little cubbies and an open closet.”
Clad in hiking gear and boots and equipped with insect repellent, the students met each morning at the dining hall across a footbridge spanning a gorge for a hearty breakfast of eggs, beans and rice. Also an essential accessory in the tropical environment: effective light-weight rain gear.
“It rained almost every day, sometimes heavily, but mostly it was soft,” she said.
The first couple of days consisted of exploring the lowland forest on narrow paths and bridges, looking for species to study. After identifying one, they would settle into a routine of observation and note-taking, meeting later to go over what they experienced. Garcia focused on butterflies and moths, including varieties as big as her hand.
“I noticed they were very sensitive to altitude differences,” she said. “I wanted to see if there was a difference in how many and the different types of butterflies present between the two elevations.”
After a week at La Selva, they set out for Las Cruces, a forested upland area 165 miles southeast of San Jose. On the way, they stopped at areas of cultural interest – including one where they learned how to make masks – but it was the natural wonders that stayed with Garcia the most. The toucans, howler monkeys, strange bats, sloths, poison dart frogs, plus the variety of insects, all combined to create a constant hum of life.
“I saw a moth that had a wingspan of 14 inches,” she said. “There was really just so much to see. In the morning, you could hear howler monkeys and then the poison dart frogs and the cicadas. It was just a constant stream of noise from animals and insects.
“Just getting to see so much nature, walking on the trails and stopping to look at different insects and animals, I would do it again,” she said. “I liked the research, and the rainforest is a great place to do research because there is so much there.”
To learn more about USF and USFSM study abroad opportunities, or about scholarship opportunities such as the Clyde G. Nixon International Business Scholarship, visit, usfsm.edu/academics/global-engagement/index.aspx.