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UST-Houston Study Abroad Trip for Pragmatic Studies provides experiential education to students with learning differences

Pragmatic Studies group navigates the airportIn June, the UST-Houston Kolbe School of Innovation & Professional Studies’ trailblazing Pragmatic Studies program took 13 students with learning differences on a transformational study abroad trip to the Central American country of Belize. The five-day visit was packed with firsts, starting with the journey itself. It was Pragmatic Studies’ first study abroad. For most students, it was the first time they had ever traveled away from home and family, and here they were on a journey to a foreign nation.

Planners designed the travel to be part experiential learning and part mission trip. As you might imagine, the experiential portion began almost immediately. 

“Simple things like finding their way through an airport, filling out the immigration forms, and going through customs was an incredible learning experience,” Chair of Pragmatic Studies Dr. Tera Torres explained. “And that anticipated opportunity happened only a couple of hours into the trip!”

Pragmatic studies student eager to snorkelDr. Torres and Chair of Kolbe’s General Business Program Dr. Mark Amelang led the enthusiastic group of game-changers through an impressive compassion-and-confidence-building schedule.

Touched by Mission Outings to Serve

At an early learning center for pre-K through second grade, UST’s students divided into groups to help the young children with reading, drawing and art.

On their second outing, our giving Celts delivered bags of rice, beans and other staples to the island’s poorest residents in their hardly homes. It was profoundly touching and eye-opening community work.

“This was a very moving experience,” Dr. Amelang recalled. “Most houses we visited were really just shacks with tarp roofs, dirt floors, no running water, no electricity. Our students saw how poverty looks up close and personal for the first time. They were moved by the hard circumstances of the residents and by how grateful people were for the food and visit.”

Two students accompanied Amelang to see a man who remained happy and prayerful despite being paralyzed on one side of his body by a stroke for 17 years.

“We climbed the rickety stairs to find him joyful,” he said. “As with all the residents we visited, we prayed with him. That night, we sat down with our students to make sure everyone could process all they saw.”

One student, Victoria Tran, shared, “I have always had a big heart, but I didn’t realize how big my heart could get and how much love it really has to give.”

The final mission took them to an orphanage, Hope Haven Children’s Home, which serves and protects children who have been sexually abused by their parents. Our students visited with the kids, then joined them on a beach cleanup.

Dr. Tera Torres (center) with students ready for one of their boat tripsEmboldened by Adventure Activities

Drs. Torres and Amelang led their charges on other coming-of-age portions of the trip—adventure activities: A beautiful lagoon water park, a ferry ride through the open ocean, boat and snorkeling trips.

“The snorkeling trip pushed the bounds of adventure for a couple of the students, but led to a breakthrough,” Torres recalled. “Madison Brooks was scared to snorkel, preferring to stay on the boat. But after Dr. Amelang showed him how to work with the mask and see the incredible underwater sights, Madison jumped in and snorkeled with the non-aggressive nurse sharks at Hol Chan Marine Sanctuary!”

In the end, this world-expanding study abroad accomplished its ambitious goals. As a result of their expedition, UST’s Pragmatic Studies students had matured, acquired more knowledge and experience, and built more confidence.

The program’s most passionate supporter, Dr. Torres, enthusiastically proclaimed, “There are no boundaries for students — the sky is the limit! Having learning differences does not preclude anyone from having a rich and vibrant life that can include a full college experience.”

Already Planning for Next Year

Next year’s plan is to expand the study-abroad to Belize, making it a six-week, 200-hour internship experience in which UST’s Pragmatic Studies students will teach the children of Belize to read, write and do basic math.