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Lila Cantrell’s Winter Abroad in Mexico

Study Abroad Program:
Mexico: Grand North American Migrations, the Monarch Butterfly & the Humpback Whale (Winter Break ‘22/’23)

Forest Management Ecology; Minors: Environmental Science, Environmental Education, Wildlife Science

Lila Cantrell at Cerro Pelon butterfly reserve.

Why did you choose to study abroad and why did you choose this program specifically?

I always desired to study abroad and when I saw this program I knew it was right up my alley. From a young age I was interested in the butterfly life cycle. My dad and I would plant milkweed and we had a butterfly terrarium where we watched the cocoons and metamorphosis process. I knew that this trip would allow me to observe the entire butterfly lifecycle and really desired to go. As a forest management major I completed summer camp this past year and I really loved Dr. Moorman’s wildlife week. This inspired me to add wildlife science as a minor. I loved wildlife week and the birding we did during summer camp, and I knew I wanted to have more  wildlife viewing opportunities. I knew this trip would provide me with just that opportunity, and I was able to see some amazing birds, mammals, reptiles, and insects.

Butterflies cover a branch -
Monarchs completely covering the branch of Abies religiosa at Cerro Pelon.

What were some of your favorite experiences during your trip? 

We did so much more on the trip than whale watching and looking at butterflies, but I will have to say that those were my two favorite experiences during the trip. The best butterfly sanctuary we went to was Cerro Pelon where we rode up on horses to the sanctuary. At the top there were thousands of butterflies hanging on the trees and flying around. It was honestly like confetti when they would start flying around. It was so peaceful, joyful, and beautiful. There are no words for what it was like. 

My favorite experience during the trip was watching the whales breach. During my trip I saw four whales breach! I was standing on the shore looking out at the sunset when I saw my first whale breach, and it was amazing. The second sighting happened when we were out on the Pacific in a small boat, and I turned around and saw one breach about 100 yards away. For the final sighting, we were looking out at the ocean with binoculars, and we saw a mother whale teaching her baby how to breach. The calf just kept flipping and breaching to practice, and it was amazing. Besides the sites, I really had a great time bonding with other Natural Resource majors and other students from CALS. It was a great bonding experience and I made some good friends on this trip.

Whale blow at Puerto Vallarta Bay.

How did your study abroad experience prepare you for your future career?

I hope to be an environmental educator, and this trip allowed me to see other environmental educators at work. It was cool to have formal environmental educators with us such as Dr. Clyde Sorenson and our travel leader Dave. But it was also a good experience for me to learn from informal environmental educators such as the guides we had at the butterfly sanctuaries and the information we received from Karel, our trip guide and whale biologist. I believe that this experience helped me for my future career by allowing me to learn from environmental educators, but this experience also showed me what type of careers are in my field of interest. I was able to see a lot of forest types and wildlife species, which was super cool, and it was amazing to see the natural resource careers Mexico provided.

Group photo at the military macaw reserve on the final day in Mexico.

What did you learn about yourself through this trip?

I really learned how much more capable I am than I have ever given myself credit for. I was really nervous to take my first trip out of the country with a large group of practically strangers. I was nervous to leave home and at moments regretted my choice to go, but once in Mexico, I realized how great it is to put myself out of my comfort zone and do things that I perceive at first as scary. This trip put me in places and experiences that I would have never done alone due to fear of messing up or other nerves. I learned through this trip how adaptable and capable I am of learning and trying new things. An example of this would be riding a horse up the mountain. I would have never chosen to do that independently and would have opted out for the harder hike up instead. When thrown into the situation, I had to get over my nerves and ride the horse. It ended up being really fun, and I did good. There were other things that happened similar to this that gave me a feeling of accomplishment when I completed them, but ultimately this trip showed me how capable I am and that the biggest barrier to new experiences and opportunities is myself. So I believe this trip taught me to be more courageous and to try new things because life’s too short to not make the most of it!

Riding horses up to the Cerro Pelon butterfly sanctuary. 

Were you surprised by anything during your time abroad?

Honestly, I was amazed about how mountainous Mexico was. I guess I never looked at one of the topography globes enough, but the mountain ranges were insane. We were at elevations and mountain tops double the highest mountains I’ve been to in North Carolina. It was honestly shocking, and I continued to be amazed by the mountains my entire trip. The mountain ranges in Macheros (where Cerro Pelon is) really reminded me of my home in the mountains. It was refreshing because it was familiar but also made me a little bit homesick. Even the mountains at the coast really shocked me. North Carolina’s coast is obviously extremely flat but there were huge mountains right around the edge of the bay at Puerto Vallarta. I spent a majority of my plane rides watching the mountain ranges and the forests. I was also surprised by the whale activity and getting to see them breach! I was actually the only student to see the whales breach and it was so surprising and amazing. It was really cool to learn about their life history and why they have the behaviors they do.

Is there any advice you have for students interested in studying abroad? 

Don’t let fear or nerves knock you out of a once in a lifetime opportunity! Also, there is funding and help available to help you go on these trips, so make the most of your resources and support while you have it in college!

Mountains surrounding Puerto Vallarta bay.