Illini in New Zealand

Alumni in NZ.jpg

The notion of leaving your comfort zone and venturing into the unknown is the whole premise of studying abroad.  You might find yourself at cultural crossroads not knowing what to do in a different country.  However, that is all a part of the fun.  The chance to explore realms unknown to you for the duration of a few weeks was ultimately my goal in studying abroad in New Zealand.  The Massey University National Expedition and Internship was the exact program to meet my needs.  I had the opportunity to traverse the country for the first 2 weeks visiting 12 different cities within both the North and the South Island.  Then I had the opportunity to intern for a local business based in the Hawkes Bay region.  Within my time abroad I met many new faces with diverse backgrounds.  What truly amazed me was the fact that I met a University of Illinois alumni while on this program.  The picture above was taken at Mt. Nicolas Sheep Station and Jack in the middle attended our alma mater for his Masters a few years back, while myself and the 3 other students are currently attending U of I as well.  It was a truly amazing feeling knowing that Illini are all over the planet and how a program like this connected us.  This program not only taught me how to work for and with an international business but it gave me deeper insight into the little known realm of New Zealand agriculture.


The Fifth Week of Adventures in Paradise

As my time at CEI nears it’s end, I can’t help but feel quite sentimental about it. I only have one more week of waking up and seeing the ocean as I open my eyes. Only one more week of being able to see the most astonishing things I have ever seen. Never before in my life have I been so immersed in adventure.

I also got a special opportunity this week. This Tuesda,y the stingray team took a subset of CEI’s Bahamian staff out to catch rays. This is a particularly extraordinary opportunity because it not only gives the ray team a chance to collect data, but it gives the staff a unique research-oriented experience.

Rays were around the Schooner Keys, a beautiful set of very small islands just offshore of campus, as well as in Deep Creek, an intertidal creek system located not far from CEI. Surprisingly, almost none of the staff had ever been to the keys, despite their geographical proximity. Catching rays was an incredible introduction into the world of research, since the capture process is incredibly active and exciting. To catch a ray, the staff, along with CEI’s stingray interns and researchers rode around on boats or trudged through the water looking for rays. When one was spotted, the team would surround the ray as fast as possible, being careful not to let it get through the circle. Once the ray was herded into a giant net, it was scooped out with a smaller net and led to shallow water to be measured and tagged. The ray’s barb was secured, and the staff got a chance to feel and to interact with the ray, as well as to  measure and tag it. Throughout the day, we caught two southern stingrays (D. americana) and two Caribbean whiptail (H. schmardae) stingrays.

The capture and tagging of these rays is invaluable to the research being done at CEI because each ray caught is data towards the hypothesis that there is significant habitat separation between the two stingray species mentioned above. The four rays we caught contribute to this hypothesis. The two Caribbean whiptails were caught in Deep Creek, while the southerns were caught on the small offshore Schooner Keys.

Stingrays were a particularly special species to be able to research because all too often they are associated with an unfortunate stigma of fear and are a vastly under-researched creature. As meso-predators, and under their role as habitat engineers, they’re importance in an ecosystem cannot be understated. One day in the field with the stingray team at CEI and that fear had dissipated and was replaced with loads of curiosities and questions.

Science is, at it’s core, the exploration of curiosities. By providing an opportunity for the staff to get out in the field, curiosities were both created and satisfied.

In my final week at CEI, I am excited to continue field work, strengthen the relationships I’ve made so they’ll last after we all part to our respective homes, and to continue to be as adventurous as possible!



EI Purpan summer program – the internship


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After studying in Toulouse for a month, most of us students in EI Purpan were packed and shipped to our individual internship locations for another month of practical work. Being in the viticulture & enology program, we were matched to wine-related facilities, most commonly vineyards. In my case, my internship location was a chai, a vineyard, as well as a pépenière. north of Bordeaux, in a small village called Générac. Wines produced here belong to the côtes-de-blaye or the blaye-côtes-de-bordeaux appellation, part of the appellations system of Bordeaux. The vineyard is large compared to most and fully mechanized, but the pépenière relies on manual labor, so that was where I worked most of the time. Later when it became too hot to work in greenhouses we went to the chai (the brewing and labeling facility) to label bottles from previous years. In the two greenhouses, I worked with the host madame’s niece to sort through grafted vines based on their sizes and health, picked away off shoots growing from the root stem, watered them and loaded the plants onto vans. The greenhouses are full of interesting critters like orange slugs, toads, and once we saw a green salamander.

Everyday my work starts at 8 am, at noon we have lunch and siesta, then resume back to work from 2 pm to 5 or 6 pm depending on how much work is to be done on that day. For every meal (breakfast excluded) it was usually the madame, her husband and me at the table, sometimes a relative or two would come over for lunch; no mater how many people ate together, the food was always brought out in courses: aperitif, starters (usually melons, pretzel snacks, or a slice or country ham), main course, salad (which became synonymous with lettuce), cheeses and dessert. I liked how it is mandatory to “make the table” before the start of every meal — having the plate, silverware, water glass, napkin all ready to use really makes eating a more serious business. There are certain patterns in foods too. For example, every Saturday the couple’s youngest daughter comes over to make steak and fries, every Sunday is a family gathering of 10 people or more.

While interning here, the madame and her in-law’s family showed nothing but hospitality and inclusion. Together we went to the Citadel of Blaye, Saint-Emilion (a famed Bordeaux wine producing region and appellation), Plassac at the bank of the Gironde river with its historical buildings and yellow stone houses, we also biked to a lake and watched the music festival there; one Saturday the in-law broke out her horse riding gadgets and let me ride with their ponies.

On the 14th of July, instead of going to the jumping show at the Citadel with the family, I asked for a day-off on Friday and went hiking in Cantal. Le Cantal is known for its mountain range and great cheeses, and soon after I told them my plan the madame and the in-law’s family decided to join me as well — the hike later turned into a family road-trip in a snuggly camping car.

I can only be grateful for the good hearts of these hard-working people, knowing how many different jobs it involves to make a bottle of wine, and understanding what family unity means to the château, when every child who comes to visit, 35 or 20 years old, would help out in the greenhouses or the chai.


ACES 298-Discovering Guatemalan Agriculture: Antigua, Guatemala. By Jenna Davis

Day One in Antigua started with breakfast at 9:00 a.m., we got to sleep in a little due to our late night the day before. I toured our hotel, which was more like a bed and breakfast beforehand. I was particularly shocked when I went up on the rooftop garden, and saw mountains surrounding us in every direction! Being from Illinois, I am only used to seeing flat ground.

Breakfast was relatively simple, toast and banana bread, hashbrowns and eggs, and fresh fruit; my favorite by far. After eating, we grabbed our bags and headed to the bus. The drive took around 45 minutes or so, in which I eagerly looked out the window at the beautiful landscape. Then, we finally reached our destination: Volcan Pacaya, or Pacaya Volcano, which we were about to hike up.

We stepped out and were offered hiking sticks by the local children, which we would later regret not purchasing. We then walked to the business, met our guide, and went on our way. He explained to us that we would be trekking 4 kilometers up the volcano, and then 4 kilometers back down. I was a little weary of this idea, but determined to make it nonetheless.

Setting off on the hike, I came to the conclusion that I had no idea what the word ‘steep’ meant before today. The terrain was brutal. Even with frequent breaks, my whole body was on fire, and I was pushed to my limits. Despite the strenuous nature, I still was able to enjoy the scenery, which proved to be even more beautiful when hiking up the Volcano.

After what felt like forever, we finally reached the top. The view was gorgeous, and you could see miles in every direction. Our guide pointed out the local cities and lakes below us, and the names of the surrounding mountains. He also took some group shots of us, and we took some incredible ones ourselves.

We then proceeded to begin our hike back down the volcano, however, not before we took a stroll through the ash and roasted some marshmallows on the volcanic rock! When we finally made it to the van, we collapsed, exhausted and hungry after a long day. Guatemala 2016 233


ACES 298: Discovering Caribbean Agriculture Systems

January 7, 2016

We rose bright and early to begin our day with breakfast and bid farewell to the Drake hotel. Our class boarded the bus to head to our first tour of the day, Goya Food Processing Enterprise.
We learned a great deal about the process workers take to can important Dominican products. Green beans are the main focus at this time of year, but coconuts are most frequently processed in this plant. We left Goya realizing that this developing country, has established a strong system of efficient canning that is able to be shipped internationally.
Our next stop was MACAPI, an avocado processing factory. Upon our arrival, our bus was greeted with waving children and many smiling Dominican citizens. The factory manager informed us that six months ago, the USDA found a Mediterranean fly infestation within a shipment of green-skinned avocados at the Punta Cana airport. This caused a ban to be placed all across the island on exports of this avocado sent to the United States. MACAPI is only allowed to ship currently to Europe.
After our tour of the avocado plant, our class was taken to a terrace where we ate guacamole and drank mango punch. For many of us, this was the first time trying guacamole and we enjoyed experiencing it on the island all together. During our tour, we became more knowledgable about how much hard work goes into products we buy and consume daily.
Next, our bus headed to the Agora Mall for a quick lunch and a little bit of shopping, prior to departing for the United States Embassy. The United States Embassy has a sector of focus called USAID. They place much emphasis on climate control and the education of the agricultural community. During our visit, we were informed that the United States made the decision to reaccept the imports of green-skinned avocados. This change will greatly affect the amount of processing completed in the MACAPI plant.
The bus became a little louder as our class got back on and became excited to venture to Our next destination.
Unfortunately, on our way to the beautiful city of Santiago, our bus broke down. Luckily, the kind people of the Dominican Republic were able to help us and send us on our way in no time.
Arriving in Santiago we all loved, Aloha Sol, the new hotel we will be staying in. It was stunning! Our first experience in the city was to go out to eat on a patio restaurant in Downtown Santiago near our hotel. The restaurant we chose helped enforce practicing our Spanish language.

~Sydney Miller

Sydney Miller's photo.
Sydney Miller's photo.
Sydney Miller's photo.
Sydney Miller's photo.



Part 2: Internship in Rome

During the second term of my study abroad experience I had the opportunity to intern at a vineyard and winery just outside of Rome, located in Frascati. This was my favorite part of the trip because I was able to see what it would be like in the working world one day, but in a foreign country. Every day I would take the bus to the Termini train station in Rome, which was  a 30 minute ride and then from the train station I would take a train to Frascati and be picked up by my supervisor. This added up to be about an hour commute everyday and really taught me how to deal with people on the bus and how to communicate with others when I need directions. My job as an intern was to market the vineyards wines, increase their number of American tourist customers and enter the U.S. market to export wines in the Illinois area. I was so grateful that I was given such a large responsibility and so much freedom on how to achieve these different tasks. During the day, I would work with my supervisor on improving their social media platforms and contact several different touring agencies in Rome and different importers in back in the states. I formulated personal emails for each person that I was in contact with to make sure they knew how great the Merumalia brand was and how much we care about our products and customers. I was actually very successful in increasing their number of American tourists because I created a brochure that was then sent out to each American University in Rome that advertised different learning opportunities that were offered at the vineyard. One section of the brochure was dedicated to forming a partnership with the university and vineyard. I included a contact number and email that could be reached if the university was interested in forming a partnership with the vineyard. During this month of my study abroad experience, I was able to learn a lot about different marketing concepts and how to form successful relationships with customers. I cannot wait to see where this internship will take me and who I will be put into contact with from the different networks I made.

IMG_2792 Here’s a picture of me working on the vines at Merumalia.

I was obviously kept very busy with my internship during the week, but on the weekends I was still able to travel with my friends that I had made during the program.


Cooking for Health in France Part Two 

After studying in Beauvais, France for a month I received the chance to stay with a host family and intern for their small business. The Fagot family has a beer and jam business that they run straight out of their own home. As an intern, my job was to assist the family with daily activities regarding their business. My favorite part was learning how to produce beer. I learned about the basic beer production steps last semester in a food fermentation class, but getting to actually produce beer was so much more informative. Most beer productions follow the same steps but there’s a lot of room for variation within these steps, which is why there are so many different types of beer. I also got to experiment with how the type of grain affects the beer’s taste, color and alcohol content. Another one of my favorite tasks was to measure the alcohol content in the beer and then adjust the batch accordingly. I’ve never done anything like that and it was an interesting aspect of the alcohol industry to learn about. I learned that beer production is a very physically demanding job but I also realized that I am definitely interested in the alcohol and sprits industry as a future career. As a food science major, this is one of the future career paths that I can easily take. I plan on taking more microbiology and beverage classes before I graduate to explore this aspect of the food industry more. The picture below is of my host family’s beer vat that is actually an old milk tank that was converted to work for beer production.


I spent a lot of my time assisting my host family with their homemade jam business. My jobs consisted of picking the fruits, cleaning and hauling them and monitoring the jam. When you make jam, the fruit is heated until it is broken down and can then be put through a filter to ensure that any large particles such as pits or seeds don’t end up in the final product. The jam is then heated again to prevent any microbial contamination. During this heating, I used a refractor to measure the amount of sugar in the jam and then calculated how much more should be added. I liked getting to apply a scientific technique that I’ve used in food labs back at school to an everyday application. One of the most interesting this about interning for my host family was getting to see of the different types of jam they produce. They use any local fruit then can and even make jam out of beer! Below are a few pictures of the jam production, the one on the left is of strawberries that were just picked and were about to be heated and the one on the right is of the same strawberries after they were heated, put through a filter and then heated again.


When I wasn’t helping the Fagots with their family business, I was fully submerged in their everyday lives. I ate with them at every meal and did family activities with them like playing games and watching the euro soccer tournament that was happening while I was abroad. I also got to go the local fireworks and farmer’s markets with them. This was an amazing opportunity to learn about French culture. I learned so much about how they eat, talk and view the outside world. It was eye opening to watch the news with them every morning especially when it was about the US. I was shocked that the US was featured in their news almost everyday but then they explain that the US is such a big and powerful country that its news directly impacts France and other countries across the world. The US had a lot of negative press though, mainly because of our upcoming election and because of all of the mass shooting that occurred this summer. I enjoyed getting to hear what the French had to say about all of these events, it was interesting to hear form an outside party.

I thought I leaned a lot about French culture while I was studying in Beauvais, France but I learned so much more during my time with my host family. They were some of the kindest people I have ever met and I am so grateful that they opened their home to me. I loved everything about my month with them and plan to stay in contact with them. Below is a picture of my host family and myself, I’m going to miss them so much when I leave!


Madeline Bills


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