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Vocation Vacations: Impact Outside the Classroom

Last Updated on September 16, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Originally published September 16, 2019

By UC Staff

UTEP Communications

Summer vacation has long been synonymous with relaxation and long days of fun in the sun, but for some students at The University of Texas at El Paso it was an opportunity to expand their horizons and knowledge by taking part in internships, study abroad programs and research experiences locally, nationally and abroad.

Multiple students across disciplines saw summer as a vacation from the classroom and time to explore real-world possibilities reflective of their academic or career goals. Courtesy photos
Multiple students across disciplines saw summer as a vacation from the classroom and time to explore real-world possibilities reflective of their academic or career goals. Courtesy photos

Multiple students across disciplines saw summer as a vacation from the classroom and time to explore real-world possibilities reflective of their academic or career goals. What they got out of their experiences was transformative and left a lasting impression. Each student documented their summer adventure and reflected on their personal experience.

Here are a few of their stories




Jasmin Amaya: Honing Pharmacy Skills in Ireland

Doctoral student, Pharmacy

Jasmin Amaya loved to read about distant lands and imagine what it would be like to visit them. In June, Amaya’s dream became reality when she traveled to Ireland for two weeks with 15 of her UTEP School of Pharmacy classmates.

The group crisscrossed Dublin on the city’s public transportation system, hopping off to tour Trinity College’s School of Pharmacy in the center of the Irish capital. They also volunteered at Our Lady’s Hospice, Ireland’s largest hospice.

“We experienced firsthand the key to improving patient outcomes, which stems from a holistic approach to patient care that includes the patients' cultural and community values, and not merely analyzing scientific disease progression,” Amaya said.

The School of Pharmacy requires students to engage in short-term study abroad or study away experiences designed to prepare future pharmacists to better serve diverse communities and cultures.

“I sought an adventurous opportunity to be immersed into the Irish culture,” Amaya said. “It is less perplexing to understand the values and decision making of our patients when in a familiar environment. In order to grow and challenge myself, I realized I would benefit from observing and interacting with a different society.”

In addition to navigating a new city, Amaya managed to immerse herself in a new culture, which included understanding Irish colloquialisms and adjusting to Ireland’s daily 16 hours of sunlight.

“Ireland allowed me to develop characteristics of adaptation that I didn’t realize I had,” Amaya said. “Overcoming these personal challenges have provided me with confidence and shaping of resilient character that will contribute to my personal and professional life.”




Jessica Carreon: Providing Help Close to Home

Senior, Nursing

Rather than relax by the pool, UTEP nursing major Jessica Carreon spent her last summer break before graduation providing much-needed community health screenings.

As vice president of UTEP’s Texas Nursing Students' Association (TNSA), Carreon coordinated the El Paso Downtown Artist and Farmers Market health fair. She and eight other nursing students provided blood pressure and body mass index (BMI) checks, and shared information about chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. 

Carreon also recruited nursing students to volunteer alongside physicians and nurse practitioners in the community to provide health screenings for Special Olympics athletes. 

“Being able to give back to the community by doing something as simple as volunteering for a few hours to perform health screenings is rewarding,” said Carreon, who expects to graduate from the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in May 2020. “Some people unfortunately don't have health insurance or access to visit a clinic to have something as simple as their blood pressure taken. This, itself, can help save someone's life or avoid injury to a patient.”

Carreon joined TNSA in 2018 to serve the community. Between 60% and 70% of undergraduate nursing students volunteer through TNSA.

Activities such as health fairs enable students like Carreon to apply their knowledge and skills while learning a valuable lesson in community service.

“Both of these events allow students from different semesters in nursing school to practice their skills while working alongside physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals,” Carreon said. “As a nursing student, we are able to ask questions, practice our skills, and practice our therapeutic communication.”



Heriberto Garcia: Culture and Lessons from the Ivy League

Master’s student, College of Education

Heriberto Garcia wanted to participate in the prestigious Yale University Macmillan Center Summer 2019 Pier Institute for Educators because he considered it a unique opportunity.

Garcia, a master’s student in the College of Education, said the weeklong course focused on refugees and immigration, as well as the factors that drive people to leave their native countries. The course also covered human rights, activism, educational research, as well as classroom and student development. Instructors also taught the institute’s cadre of U.S. and international students how to apply current affairs in politics and education to become better advocates for victims of unequal treatment.

The El Paso native said he considered the information vital because of the El Paso region’s recent history with undocumented migrants who need services and advocates. Garcia, an internship coordinator in UTEP’s Career Center, said he now has a better understanding of international policies that affect college students. He added that he appreciated how his classmates shared many tips to enhance academic research.

The first-generation college student, who earned his bachelor’s degree in multimedia journalism from UTEP in 2017, added that the experience also helped him to grow as an individual. He said he visited museums and galleries that gave him different perspectives about the arts, music, history, literature, the natural sciences and so much more.

“The whole thing was refreshing,” said Garcia, who called the historic Yale campus in New Haven, Connecticut, “beautiful and breathtaking.” He said the experience would make him a better researcher and educator.



Priscilla Gonzalez: Telling the Target Story

Junior, Marketing

Priscilla Gonzalez, a junior marketing major, learned how to tell compelling visual stories to spur consumer sales during a summer internship at Target in the Fort Worth area.

Gonzalez worked in the retail giant’s style and visual merchandising department learning how marketing and merchandizing can work synergistically by using displays and signage to create connections with customers.

“Since my focus was the style department and visual merchandising, I learned how Target creates a story through their products that their guests relate to and is the main reason why customers keep shopping in store at Target,” Gonzalez said. “As a marketer I think it is important to understand different perspectives to transmit that message.”

Gonzalez was also enthused to work for a company that engages in philanthropic efforts and volunteering.

“Target is a company that aligns with the values I have, and being a recognized brand in the United States, it is really amazing how much they care for the community and their customers,” Gonzalez said. “So, I chose to pursue this opportunity because I know it will be beneficial for me not only as a leader, but also as an individual among a community.”

Gonzalez says the thing that stood out to her the most was understanding the different leadership roles she came across and how each one influences the team differently.

“I think that in a big company such as Target, it is important to remain focused and appreciate the people that are working with you to reach the company's goals where the ultimate result is customer satisfaction,” Gonzalez said.



Ruth Granados: Smart City Planning in the Czech Republic

Senior, Civil Engineering

Ruth Granados learned about smart cities infused with sustainable infrastructure during a two-week faculty-led program in Prague, Czech Republic, as part of a collaboration between UTEP and Czech Technical University.

The senior civil engineering major was assigned a project focusing on an efficient, sustainable, economically developed city that would enhance the quality of life of citizens by using data and new technologies.

Granados said she learned specific characteristics of smart cities, new technologies, traffic-flow improvement and different methods to present projects in an efficient way. She learned about information and communication technologies (ICT), which enhance the quality and performance of urban services such as energy, transportation and utilities in order to reduce resource consumption, waste and cost.

“I learned that the future depends on us and there are many ways that we can improve a city by creating something efficient, sustainable and economically developed to enhance the quality of life of citizens by using data and new technologies,” Granados said.

Granados said the experience changed her in a very positive way, not only professionally but on a personal level. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in transportation and believes this opportunity will help open many doors for her in the future.

“First, it never crossed my mind to embark on a journey where you get to be miles and miles away from home,” Granados said. “I have always been an introverted person who never stood outside the box. But this opportunity has completely changed my mind and I am ready for my next adventure.”



Erica Herrera: Researching the Deep-Sea Food Web

Junior, Chemistry

Erica Herrera delved into the intricacies of oceanic life and the climate conditions that affect it during a 12-week summer student fellowship program at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

The junior chemistry major worked with WHOI scientists and engineers who are part of the world’s leading, independent nonprofit organization dedicated to ocean research. Herrera, who hopes to obtain a doctorate in chemical oceanography, said her experience with one of the world’s top oceanic research institutions was a great opportunity. 

Herrera worked in the marine chemistry and geochemistry department in the lab of Julie Huber, Ph.D., an oceanographer who focuses on biogeochemistry of the deep sea. Herrera’s work focused on microbial food web dynamics of hydrothermal vent systems and how energy moves from primary producers at these sites to the larger ocean system. This involved collecting and studying water samples from hydrothermal vents in the deep sea.

Herrera also attended various lectures and toured the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) Rare Book Archives, where she saw first edition volumes of books signed by Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, and other influential scientists. She said she got to hold a Nobel Prize, which was donated by Thomas Morgan who received it in 1933 for his work on genetics. Herrera also received her scuba-diving certification.

“I learned a lot about scientific outreach this summer,” Herrera said. “WHOI and MBL both host lots of events and talks throughout the summer that are geared toward the public and discuss climate change, conservation, ocean science, and how to be an advocate for the environment so that more people are aware of the issues our planet and society are facing and what they can do to help.”



Erika Magalde: Helping Those Who Can’t Hear

Master's student, Speech-Language Pathology

Erika Magalde, a speech-language pathology (SLP) student clinician, learned a valuable lesson about communication while working with siblings at a summer camp for children with hearing impairments. 

Although only one of the siblings had hearing loss, Magalde said she was humbled to see how supportive and helpful the siblings were when they communicated with each other.

“The children with hearing loss were so eager to communicate through sign language and orally,” Magalde said. “Watching how they taught each other signs and words and how those learning observed closely and practiced was amazing.”

During the weeklong “Fun with Language and Learning Camp” in July at St. Paul’s Church in Central El Paso, 18 SLP student clinicians worked as camp volunteers and gained critical clinical experience in working with children with cochlear implants and hearing aids. They guided children and their parents through activities including music, arts and crafts, and social sessions.

Magalde, who hopes to provide auditory-based therapy to children with hearing loss in the future, was inspired to learn sign language after working with the camp’s children.

“I learned the importance of being flexible in my communication skills,” Magalde said. “I count on using my voice as a mode of communication on a daily basis, but others use sign language to communicate. Although this was a camp that encouraged children to communicate using their voice, I was able to experience firsthand how supporting communication through the visual aspect as a second modality can help make those connections.”



Andrea Daniella Mata: Learning About Hispanic Health in Panama

Junior, Sociology

After eight weeks living with a host family in the country of Panama and studying cognitive impairment and dementia in the country’s elderly population, Andrea Daniella Mata returned to El Paso inspired to support and empower marginalized communities. 

Mata, a junior sociology major, traveled to Panama from June 15 to Aug. 10, 2019, with UTEP’s Minority Health International Research Training (MHIRT) program. Based in the College of Health Sciences, the all-expenses paid program allows undergraduate and graduate students from underrepresented populations to engage in mentor-led research projects that address Hispanic health disparities in Panama and Costa Rica.

In Panama’s government research institute, INDICAST, Mata was involved in a project that examined the association between socioeconomic status and health-related factors in Panamanian elderly adults.

“My mentor, Dr. Gabrielle Britton, taught me that researchers have a responsibility to spread knowledge to not only our community but to the world,” said Mata, who plans to pursue a master’s in public health and attend law school after she graduates from UTEP in 2021. “The academic community in Panama awakened a sense of purpose in me to do more for others by educating and advocating for minority populations.”

For Mata, stepping outside of her comfort zone to study abroad for the first time also helped boost her self-confidence.

“I was afraid, intimidated, and scared of speaking in another language and working with mentors who are experts in their field,” Mata said. “I learned that being scared of challenges only makes me a better mentee, student and learner.”



Paulina Ramirez: Following the Path of a Poet

Junior, Creative Writing

Paulina Ramirez experienced two days without rain during her summer internship abroad in Cumbria, a rural county in the northwest region of the United Kingdom. But wet conditions didn’t dampen the spirits of the junior creative writing major, who was in the English market town of Keswick as part of the “Walking With Wordsworth” study abroad experience put on by the Humanities Collaborative at El Paso Community College-The University of Texas at El Paso.

“I chose this because I have always wanted to visit the UK,” Ramirez said. “It was the greenest place I have ever seen. It was beautiful.”

The course was centered on the movements of English Romantic poet William Wordsworth, who arrived in Cumbria’s Lake District near the end of the 18 th century and was inspired to write by the beauty of his surroundings. Ramirez went through classroom instruction before she walked along the same paths as the famed poet. She saw various sites where Wordsworth traveled and worked. Her most memorable moment was a hike to the summit of Castlehead, a wooded hill near Keswick that offers stunning views.

“It was a little challenging, but it was all worth it as soon as I caught a glimpse of what was on the other side,” Ramirez said. “My heart flew, fluttered, sang and, most importantly, felt whole. The scene before me was something straight out of a movie and I had never felt more grateful to be exactly where I was in that moment.”

Ramirez learned that Wordsworth was surrounded by the greatest teacher – nature! She has since felt energized to write about her experiences and has been doing so ever since.



Hugo Rodriguez: A Finance Primer on Wall Street

Senior, Finance and International Business

Hugo Rodriguez received more than a taste of the competitive world of finance during a summer internship at JP Morgan Chase in New York. The senior finance and international business major also secured employment after graduation.

“After working hard for years to obtain this opportunity, I accepted this internship because it is considered the best professional training that a finance student can obtain to build the foundations of a business career,” said Rodriguez, who worked out of the Wall Street firm’s investment banking division.

The nine-week program is designed to put talented individuals on a path to become leaders in the industry. Rodriguez gained real-world experience and had the chance to make real contributions to JP Morgan’s business through innovative projects while gaining deep insight into the consumer and community banking business.

“I learned some techniques that the most important companies in the world utilize to raise capital, some of those which include organic and inorganic growth,” Rodriguez said.

JP Morgan’s summer internships focus on helping the student gain a holistic picture of their business and industry, while leading strategic, high-priority projects for the firm. They help develop their management skills by collaborating with senior executives and benefiting from their mentorship.

“Thanks to the help of mentors, alumni, hard work and dedication, I was able to be one of the few students to get the internship and to receive the full-time offer to join the firm after graduation in one of the most competitive fields in the world,” Rodriguez said.



Austre Schiaffino: Studying Cancer Cells in San Antonio

Junior, Molecular Biochemistry

Austre Schiaffino took a closer look at the second-leading cause of death in the United States during a 10-week internship in the pathology department at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

“I chose this opportunity because, at UT Health San Antonio, I had the opportunity to participate in the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) program,” Schiaffino said.

Schiaffino’s main project involved testing the toxicity of a natural-derived compound to treat triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) cells. To achieve this, she first learned how to properly culture MDA-MB-231 cells, a cell line derived from TNBC cells.

“I was able to learn how to determine the approximate percentage of cells that are affected by the presence of this compound,” Schiaffino said. She worked with instruments such as a spectrophotometer and real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) cyclers under the guidance of Pothana Saikumar, Ph.D., associate professor at UT Health San Antonio and Babatunde Oyajobi, M.D., Ph.D., professor and CPRIT director.

“Many of the things that I learned during the summer are science-related. Some of them are techniques that allow you to determine the levels of expression of certain proteins or genes,” Schiaffino said. “In addition, thanks to the seminar provided by the CPRIT program, I learned more about personalized medicine, pediatric cancer, and prevention of cancer with natural products.”




William Campillo Terrazas: Building Homes Away from Home

Doctoral student, Pharmacy

UTEP student-pharmacist William Campillo Terrazas traded his white coat for a hard hat over the summer to build affordable homes for low-income families. 

For eight days in June, Terrazas and 11 of his School of Pharmacy classmates volunteered with Pikes Peak Habitat for Humanity in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on a home-building project.

“Our main goal was to provide adequate housing for those in need and help in eliminating barriers to health,” Terrazas said. “Overall, this experience solidified the knowledge that community-based interventions are important in helping to eliminate health disparities.”

Terrazas said the trip was an opportunity for him and his classmates to immerse themselves in a culture and community outside of their own.

Not only was Colorado’s lush green scenery different from the Texas desert, but Colorado Springs’ predominately Anglo population also had different health concerns compared with El Paso’s Hispanic population, such as housing, health literacy and tobacco use.  

Engaging students in study away or study abroad is one of the ways the UTEP School of Pharmacy prepares well-rounded and culturally educated pharmacists.

For homework, Terrazas and his classmates engaged in a reflective exercise that allowed them to critically process what they experienced each day of their trip. They focused on summarizing impactful interventions that would create a significant impact in the El Paso community.

“This experience also allowed me to reflect on the impact that meaningful community-based interventions could have in El Paso to address some of the barriers to health present in our community,” Terrazas said.



Brian Valdez: Studying Spacecraft at NASA

Master’s student, Mechanical Engineering

Brian Valdez learned from some of the brightest minds in the spaceflight industry during a summer fellowship at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The master’s student in mechanical engineering worked in the center’s spacecraft and vehicle systems division, which plans, directs and executes the research, development, design and integration of spacecraft, vehicles and transportation systems.

As a first-generation Mexican-American, Valdez said he overcame language barriers when he began his undergraduate studies. He earned this opportunity through the NASA Pathways Training Program, which provides students with paid work experience and recent graduates with a dynamic career development program at the beginning of their careers. Both offer the chance for permanent employment at the agency.

Valdez’s main project consisted of procuring and installing laboratory hardware for small-scale dynamics testing, which is being conducted as part of tests for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft that is tentatively scheduled to visit the moon in 2021.

“It was phenomenal to share the workplace and learn from some of the brightest minds and at the same time be able to work independently taking the lead in my main project,” Valdez said.

Valdez expressed gratitude for the opportunity to examine space-mission portfolios as part of his work. That opportunity will continue as he remains in Alabama to serve a fall work rotation where he will work in a different capacity in the same division.

“It was a great experience to see the qualification test article of the liquid hydrogen tank that is more than 200-feet tall sitting on the massive test stand,” Valdez said.



Dario Vazquez: Music Lessons Away From Home

Junior, Piano Performance

Dario Vazquez wanted to observe the musical landscape outside of El Paso. The junior piano performance major got the chance to do so this summer by being a part of the International Keyboard Odyssiad Festival in Fort Collins, Colorado.

For six days Vazquez immersed himself in new aspects of music at the summer piano competition and festival in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. With its master classes, presentations, mini-recitals, and an Olympic-style competition, the festival is designed for pianists of all ages and nationalities, teachers, and the general public who love the piano and its repertoire.

The Franklin High School graduate attended the festival at his professor’s urging. He came away from the experience grateful for having left the confines of his hometown.

“I learned that it is imperative to leave your comfort zone,” Vazquez said. “Watching kids as young as six and people with doctorates all performing at one place was an incredibly humbling experience.”

For Vazquez, watching professional musicians, attending lectures and master classes accentuated the attention to detail that is placed on every note of a musical piece. He said the raw talent on display motivated him to work harder and approach challenges in innovative ways.

“It opened my eyes to how much I had left to grow and how much I could bring back home to El Paso,” Vazquez said. “Overall, this festival showed me just a glimpse of what lies outside of El Paso, and quite simply, I learned so much about every aspect of music – from performance itself to the business aspect – in one week.”