Students reap rewards from internships abroad

Katie Elliott, a senior environmental horticulture major from Bluemont, Va., designed vegetable gardens for hungry children and their families in Belize.

by Lois Caliri

Katie Elliott designed vegetable gardens for schools in Belize so hungry children and their families could eat locally grown foods. Olivia Ellis interned in Mexico, where she discovered that prickly pear cactus could treat stomach ailments.

For these two students, the experiences they had in the summer of 2012 enriched their lives, challenged their assumptions, and broadened their perspectives.

Elliott, a senior from Bluemont, Va., is majoring in environmental horticulture. She performed independent research for Peacework, a nonprofit organization based in Blacksburg, Va., whose programs foster economic development and social change around the world.

Elliott’s research focused on the design of model gardens that Peacework can use for future projects.

She visited the rural village of Pomona, Belize, where she learned the kinds of food that could be grown in different climates and soil conditions. The gardens she designed provide an outdoor classroom where students and teachers learn how to grow their own foods for school lunches while also generating income.

Elliott saw students in schools surrounded by barbed wire fences and young children begging for food on the streets, both of which enhanced her awareness of poverty and disenfranchised learning environments.

“That would never happen in the United States, let alone allowing a 5-year-old to walk the streets alone,” said Elliott.

Ellis, a junior human nutrition, foods and exercise major from Vienna, Va., completed a three-month internship at Rancho La Puerta, a destination fitness center in Mexico. She prepared nutrition plans for the center’s weight loss program that included the nutritional and medicinal benefits of the prickly pear cactus, which adds a melon flavor to food.
Ellis also developed health education programs, taught group exercise classes, and led the center’s guests on challenging hikes.

“Working at the ranch was a unique experience because most of the people in class were a bit older than the students who work out at Virginia Tech’s gyms. The visitors at the ranch typically had more health issues and were taking multiple fitness classes in one day. I would still challenge them, keeping in mind they were fatigued,” Ellis said.