Study abroad trips during fall break open students’ eyes to different cultures

By Amber Friedrichsen

With passports in hand and suitcases in tow, two groups of students from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences boarded planes to study abroad during the fall vacation from Iowa State University. These faculty-led programs in Costa Rica and the United Arab Emirates allowed students to observe international agriculture and develop a global perspective of the industry.

Soils, crops and water of Costa Rica

The group of Costa Rican students traveled to many types of farms to understand soil properties, crop production, and water use in various parts of the country. Image courtesy of Blake Van Der Kamp, second year agricultural and life science student

The first group traveled to Costa Rica on a trip led by Lee Burras, Morrill professor of agronomy. Twenty-six students representing six different specialties took an early morning flight to the tropical country on November 16. They spent the next 10 days visiting farms in various regions to learn about the different types of agricultural production.

Students became familiar with the landscape of Costa Rica on the first day of their trip by taking a guided tour through the forests surrounding the Miravalles volcano. Andisols, or mineral-rich soils formed in volcanic ash, make up a large part of Costa Rica’s farmland. Understanding the properties of soil and their impact on plant growth was one of the main learning objectives of this program.

In the days that followed, the group visited a pineapple plantation, an organic vegetable farm, a coffee cooperative and an upland fruit farm. During these stops, students learned about the growing seasons, harvesting practices, processing techniques and consumer demand for these crops.


During a visit to a pineapple plantation in Costa Rica, students from the state of Iowa had the opportunity to plant trees in the owner’s garden. The activity has helped to strengthen the mission of the plantation to take care of the environment throughout the stages of production.

Nathan Behrends, a junior in agricultural studies, said his favorite part of the trip was climbing a mountain side to see avocado, peach and plum trees. While Behrends found it fascinating that these crops thrived in cooler temperatures nearly 2,000 meters above sea level, he was equally inspired by the life story of the farmer.

“He had just graduated from college before returning to the family farm with the intention of taking it over and making improvements so their business could be more successful,” Behrends said. “It was great to hear from him and I saw how difficult it can be to farm in mountain ranges with manual labor. It really made me appreciate the work of these farmers.

During the second half of the trip, the students visited a bamboo farm and learned about the wide range of products made from it. They also ventured to an oil palm plantation where farmers grew cocoa, pepper, vanilla and many other spices.

A particularly unique aspect of the trip to Costa Rica was the day the group was able to visit their tour guide’s farm in the south of the country. Although this property was not currently used for agricultural production, this stopover allowed the students to apply their knowledge of agronomy and determine what might be the best uses of this land.

“Gabby, our tour guide, has a farm inherited from her father that she is trying to develop,” Behrends said. “We walked around, surveyed the landscape and studied the ground. She gave us the analyzes of soil samples and we delved a little deeper into that data to offer her recommendations on what plants she could grow and how to fertilize them.

This kind of work is something that many travel students aspire to pursue in their careers. Behrends is one such future agronomist, and he is grateful to travel to Costa Rica for expanding his view of the world.

“The agriculture industry is so big, and I think there is a lot to learn and gain from the way other countries do things,” Behrends said.

Culture and economic diversification in the United Arab Emirates


Students who traveled to the UAE learned about international business and economics while immersing themselves in a diverse culture. Image courtesy of Brooke Beinhart, Senior Agricultural Affairs Officer

The second group of students left for Dubai on November 18. This program was led by Ebby Lugava and Amani Elobied, professors of economics, and Jean-Pierre Taoutel, associate professor in world languages ​​and cultures.

The UAE has the second largest economy in the Arab world, which easily attracts foreign investment. The objectives of this trip were to introduce the students to the banking and financial institutions of the country and to make them understand how business and commerce are affected by cultural diversity.

Two places visited by students which captured aspects of cultural diversity were the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Falcon Hospital in the capital of Abu Dhabi. Brooke Beinhart, head of agricultural affairs, said the tours were two of her favorite parts of the trip, and was especially amazed by the architecture of the mosque.

“The Grand Mosque completely took my breath away,” Beinhart said. “Every aspect has been built with so much detail that brought so much beauty to the structure.”

The next day, the group traveled to the 2020 Dubai Expo, which was postponed from last year due to COVID-19. Beinhart said the event lasts for six months, from October 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022. A total of 192 countries are participating to show their commitment to better mobility, more opportunities and to focus on sustainability for the future.

Next, the students traveled to the Jebel Ali area to learn about international trade and its importance to Dubai’s economy, as well as Ferrari World, home to the world’s fastest roller coaster. They also attended a virtual tour of the Dubai Islamic Bank.

Whitney Reever, senior in agricultural education and life sciences, said that after sunset on the sixth day, the group was able to experience a true Arabian night. The students left the city for a desert safari and participated in many cultural activities.

“We got to see what Dubai looks like apart from the skyscrapers and shiny cars,” Reever said. “We went on camel rides, got to watch a belly dancer, fire dancer, tanoura (a common dance performed in the Middle East) and had an authentic dinner.”

The end of the trip included stops at many tourist sites: Ski Dubai, the largest indoor ski resort; Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world; and the Dubai Mall. Students also visited a souk, or a traditional Arab street market, where everything from spices to fine jewelry is sold.

Upon their return to Iowa state, Beinhart and Reever agree that this trip was the opportunity of a lifetime. They enjoyed learning more about international business and economics, making connections between a diverse culture and their own.

“After traveling to the UAE, I definitely gained knowledge that will help shape my career as I move forward,” Beinhart said. “This experience opened my eyes to the world around me and helped me realize wherever I am, we are all people with many of the same values.”

Interested in learning more about CALS study abroad?

CALS’s study abroad office is moving cautiously with study abroad programs, but recognizes that things may change with the continuing influence of the global pandemic. They continue to monitor the situation and adjust plans for future programs accordingly. For more information, contact Jessica Boertje at [email protected] Requests for advice can also be made by completing the Request Information Form. Check out their website to find out more.

About Matthew Berkey

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