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For many students, studying abroad is something to dream about after their freshman year. But one group of UT students studied abroad even before taking their first class on campus.

Sixteen new first-year Chancellor’s Honors students studied ecotourism and sustainability in Costa Rica during summer 2012.

Costa Rica
A group of UT freshmen Chancellor's Honors students enjoyed Costa Rica while learning about ecotourism and sustainability on a study abroad trip they took before starting classes this fall. The trip was a first-of-its-kind for UT.

The trip was the first of its kind for UT, allowing pre-college students to experience studying abroad at the collegiate level. It was led by Pia Wood, associate provost and director of the Center for International Education, and Andy Ray, a doctoral student in the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures.

“The university wanted to try a pilot program that would prepare UT honors students for the Ready for the World initiative, while helping them make strong social bonds before actually coming onto campus,” Ray said. “I think that we succeeded at both.”

Entering first-year Chancellor’s Honors students were eligible to apply, and a committee selected the travel group. Students paid $1,700 plus airfare for the twelve-day trip, which bought them one credit hour, lodging, most meals, ground transportation, and group activities.

“I thought it would be a fantastic way to end the summer and get my mindset ready for college,” said Trent Stethen, a freshman in biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology from Knoxville. “Not to mention I became close friends with fifteen other honors students and two professors even before move-in day.”

Students who went to Costa Rica earned a credit in University Honors 101, the required first-year academic seminar for Chancellor’s Honors students. The seminar for students abroad focused on the politics of ecotourism and sustainability.

“The students learned a tremendous amount about Costa Rica and ecotourism in twelve days,” Wood said.

In addition to academic lectures by Costa Rican officials, students enjoyed learning about and taking part in three of Costa Rica’s most popular activities: surfing, hiking, and sightseeing.

“I still wake up some days and wish I was in Costa Rica,” Stethen said. “The trip had a perfectly balanced schedule of plenty of fun activities, academic lectures, and downtime.”

But even living “pura vida” can have a bit of chaos, as the students and leaders found out.

“We were returning from a hike in the rainforest, but the ride on the way back was something that I will never, ever forget,” Ray said. “A torrential downpour started just as soon as we got back into the uncovered truck. We had to cross a river about twenty times…it was just coming down like crazy.”

Even in the face of chaos, the students carried themselves like true Vols.

“They decided that it was the perfect time to sing Rocky Top. They sang it several times…it was so much fun. Keep in mind, the rain was continuing to come down like crazy the whole hour-long truck ride.”

The students agree the study abroad trip was a great introduction to life at the university—and an experience that will enhance their college careers.

“Because of my study abroad experience, I have a strong group of friends, connections with professors, and an experience that took my education to a whole new level,” said Hannah McDonald, a freshman in animal science from Winchester, Tennessee.

Wood expects to take the trip again next year with a new group of entering first-year students.

Admission to the Chancellor’s Honors Program is highly selective. Admissions decisions are made based on a holistic review process that includes, but is not limited to, students’ courses of study, grade point average, standardized test scores, leadership roles, and extracurricular activities. For more information about the honors program at UT, visit

For more information about studying abroad, visit

C O N T A C T :

Pia Wood (865-974-2173,

Andy Ray (865-974-3177,