Student Spotlight: Matthew Adkins

Matthew Adkins in Mexico

Environmental Sciences major Matthew Adkins spent his Maymester studying abroad in Mexico. The University Honors student spent most of his time exploring the Sustainability in Emerging Countries, supported by the Ron and Dale Terry Student Assistance and Enrichment Fund.

Tell us about your experience.
In Oaxaca, Mexico, we climbed the pyramids at the Zapotec archeological site of Monte Alban. Another day, we visited El Tule, the 3,000-year-old cedar tree and toured a permaculture farm. We learned how artisanal mezcal is made, attended a natural dye and weaving workshop and visited an acclaimed ceramic artist. In the city, we visited the Santo Domingo Church, toured the ethnobotanical garden and explored the colorful, busy street markets.

In Puerto Escondido, we enjoyed the beach and the mangroves, and marveled at all the biodiversity therein. We helped release newly-hatched sea turtles into the ocean so they would be safe from poachers. And in the coastal highlands, we toured an organic coffee farm.

How did this experience impact you?

This was my first time traveling outside the U.S., and adjusting to a different climate and different culture, in a place with different standards of living than those which I’m used to, really challenged my comfort zone, even though it was only for one week. I feel like this trip helped me become a better human. I learned so much; plus, it was really fun!

Why was participating in this experience important to you?

I always wanted to leave the United States at some point, but was, to be honest, pretty anxious about the idea of traveling so far away from home and everyone I know. As amazing as the program sounded, I was very indecisive about submitting my application and fluctuated between totally into it versus seriously considering not going. But eventually, I just decided to go for it — and I’m really glad I did!

What did you enjoy most about your experience?

I really enjoyed meeting so many different, beautiful, and often unfamiliar plants! I was also struck by how much I have to learn about them. Throughout the trip, I interacted with a variety of plants used for food, drink and medicine, as well as for fiber and building. I feel that the culture of Oaxaca is more in tune with the usefulness of plants, including plants native to the region, than most people in the U.S. I hope this is not something their culture will lose as their state develops and modernizes, and I think this is something that many people in the U.S. need to learn and appreciate more.

What did you learn about yourself?

I learned a lot about my limits: I learned that I get a great sense of achievement by challenging my comfort zone, whether by wandering through a foreign city after nightfall; driving up bumpy, narrow, winding mountain roads for hours; hiking through a steep, muddy coffee plantation; riding in a small plane, or even just spending a lot of time with many very different personalities — that can be its own challenge!

We had to adjust to incredibly hot weather and undrinkable tap water, sit through a lot of really long plane rides and van rides, and use some of the grossest bathrooms I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen my fair share of gas station bathrooms during long road trips in the U.S. But overcoming all of these obstacles made me feel like a real champion — and now I have a greater appreciation for all the privileges that many U.S. residents take for granted, and the resources we abuse (like water!)

However, I want to emphasize that in spite of these challenges, Oaxaca struck me as such a beautiful, incredible place full of amazing people, plants, animals, landscapes and architecture — and a place with a very important and interesting history.