A new world view: How a year abroad changed one student’s perspective on life

Mia Pique in Patagonia

Oct. 23, 2019

Most students take the bus to class. Northern Arizona University senior Mia Maria Pique machete-chopped her way through the Amazon jungle to get there.

When Pique enrolled at NAU, she had no idea her pursuit of a geology degree would take her to South America—she left her Chicago home to come out west, enticed by the possibility of studying Death Valley, the San Juan Mountains and the Grand Canyon as part of her curriculum. 

While meeting with a guidance counselor after arriving to campus, the Interdisciplinary Global Program (IGP) was suggested as an option. “What’s IGP?” she thought.

“IGP is a double degree program that our students here at NAU can participate in,” said Marcela Pino Alcaraz, program manager for IGP. “Students earn one degree in a STEM field, business or hospitality, and a second degree in culture or language. So, it’s really great for people who are interested in cultures, want to learn more about languages, want to travel the world and want to make a difference with their career.”

Being raised in a Hispanic household and having taken four years of Spanish in high school, Pique was practically fluent, so adding a second major in a language to be eligible to apply for IGP didn’t scare her off. She was put in contact with IGP coordinator Liliane Palm, who informed Pique that Argentina was being added as a destination and it just so happened to be orchestrated by geologists.

Without hesitation, she applied to the program.

Through IGP, students spend six months studying abroad and six months working at an internship or doing research abroad. Alcaraz believes this type of immersion is beneficial in more ways than one.

“Most study abroad programs really emphasize short-term education abroad, and our program is a full year abroad,” she said. “It really enables the students to immerse and participate in not just the academic components, but the cultural components of being and living abroad.”

Pique was accepted into the program as a freshman and spent the first three years of her college education building up credits and prerequisites that would allow her to spend her fourth year abroad before returning to complete her fifth year back at NAU. She also was responsible for finding her own internships abroad, so she turned to Michael Ort, a mentor, professor and volcanologist who had lived and worked in South America prior to coming to NAU.

Pique poses in front of the volcano she spent six months studying.

“After taking a geophysics course with him, I grew very interested in volcanoes,” Pique said. “So, I asked Dr. Ort if he knew of any research projects I could join in on during my time in South America.”

He did.

Pique was put in touch with a woman who works at El Instituto Geofisico, the Volcano Observatory of Ecuador. After sending her credentials and several months of communicating, she was invited to intern, where she would spend her time researching The Reventador Volcano in the Amazon Basin. 

When the time came to spend her year abroad, Pique headed to Tucumán, Argentina, where she studied geology in a Spanish-speaking university. After the six months were completed, she went to Ecuador to get hands-on experience working in an internship.

Whether it is researching volcanology through various books and papers; using a telescope to study volcanic ash sediment, separating them based on specific characteristics; or spending time in the field, hiking more than eight hours through the jungle to visit what she calls “her” volcano, the experience she got was unlike anything she could have received in the U.S.

“My experience working in a different country was difficult, rewarding, challenging and exciting. Communicating with people in Spanish could be difficult, especially after hours of hiking in the field and just wanting to revert back to English and not think about it. But, because of how challenging this was, my language skills have grown immensely, as well as my persistence during challenging moments. My favorite part was pushing myself to work harder, whether it be physically in the field on top of volcanoes or mentally during my research at the observatory.”

Pique stops to enjoy the view on one of her many backpacking trips through South America.

Pique is grateful to IGP for the education and research opportunities she received during her year abroad, but even more so for the life experiences. When she wasn’t studying or working, she spent her weekends traveling to nearby cities and countries, experiencing the politics, music, art and food of South America. Before she made her way back to the U.S. after her internship concluded, she spent two weeks on a solo backpacking trip in Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia.

“Not only did this program challenge me and allow me to grow in more ways than I could have ever imagined, but I met the most incredible people along the way,” she said. “I met scientists who educated me about the world I am interested in, activists who taught me to stand up for what I believe in, linguists who taught me the beauty of being able to communicate with someone in their vernacular, artists who inspired me by vision and vagabonds who taught me that the Earth is everyone’s shared home. Every person I met taught me a new world view and because of them, I am a wiser world citizen and a more confident me.

“It is true what people say, the places you see are amazing, but it is the people you meet that make the true difference.”

Listen to Alcaraz and Pique discuss IGP and the many opportunities to study abroad in the LumberChats: Inside NAU podcast episode—How to spend 1 year abroad & earn 2 degrees.

Pique poses at Machu Picchu in Peru.
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Carly Banks | NAU Communications
(928) 523-5582 | carly.banks@nau.edu