Sarah Cardona ’15 traveled to Chile last summer with 12 other students from St. Edward’s. They explored graffiti-lined streets and the beautiful contradictions of urban Chile.

When the kissing started, Sarah Cardona ’15 knew everything would be all right. The St. Edward’s University sophomore had arrived in Chile three days earlier, and she now found herself in the coastal city of Viña del Mar, with little more than a suitcase and some meager Spanish skills to depend on. How would she survive a few weeks’ immersion in a Chilean household? She began to worry as the car pulled up in front of her host family’s home.

¡Hola! ¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás? ¿Tienes hambre? As a half-dozen smiling people poured out of the house, peppering her with questions and kisses of greeting, Cardona knew she would be just fine. Her Spanish language skills might not be fluent, but people have always found ways to communicate even when there are barriers. In this case, Cardona knew enough Spanish to get by — and the welcoming embraces of her Chilean hosts were more than reassuring.

Driving around made you wonder how a place could be so beautiful and in so much trouble at the same time.

A Special Education major, Cardona was among 13 students who traveled to Chile last summer, accompanied by Todd Onderdonk, associate professor of University Programs; Cory Lyle, assistant professor of Spanish; and Grant Simpson, dean of the School of Education. From June 2 to June 29, the group immersed themselves in the culture, cuisine, language and lore of Chile, visiting museums and historic sites, as well as living in host homes and tutoring schoolchildren one-on-one.

International travel often has a way of accelerating language skills and fostering bonds among strangers. For Cardona and her fellow travelers, this trip would prove to be exactly that kind of journey. As recently as last spring, however, Cardona had no plans to go abroad while in college. It seemed too expensive. “I thought a trip like that would be $20,000 or so out of pocket,” says the Austin native — who held down two jobs last summer, one as a cafe associate at Sam’s Club and another as an after-school counselor with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department — to keep up with tuition and other bills. “I thought there was no way I could afford to do it right now.”

Lyle, one of her Spanish professors, had a different view. For starters, the program was considerably more economical, roughly $6,000 total. Plus, Cardona wanted to use her degree to enter the field of special education. “I’m keenly aware of the advantages of getting bilingual certification if you’re going into the teaching profession,” Lyle says. “If you’re in Texas or any of the border states, bilingual [teachers are] often in very high demand.”

Lyle suggested that Cardona sign on to study in Chile. Cardona didn’t immediately take the hint, so Lyle pressed harder. When Cardona’s mother visited campus for an honors ceremony for Spanish language students, he approached her and said he was surprised Cardona wasn’t considering the study-abroad opportunity. “Why not?” her mother asked, directing the question to her daughter. Shortly thereafter, Cardona’s family offered to cover part of the program cost. “Many [relatives] have lived in other countries for a short time and wanted to make that kind of experience possible for me,” Cardona says.

With funding in hand, Cardona began to plan for the trip. She acquired a passport (she’d only traveled outside the country once, for a family wedding and vacation in Jamaica). She improved her Spanish skills. And along with her parents, she began researching the history and culture of Chile on the Internet. The web was filled with woeful tales of security risks and problems encountered by people traveling alone, but Cardona’s parents reiterated their confidence that she would be fine. “They were concerned: What parents wouldn’t be? But they trusted me to be careful,” she says.

On June 2, after a long overnight flight that left her red-eyed and bleary (“The guy next to me — he wasn’t a student — was snoring and leaning on me. I couldn’t sleep the entire night!”), Cardona and the St. Edward’s group arrived in Santiago, the capital of Chile. They spent three days exploring tourist sites and sampling the country’s food and drink, including an excursion to a local vineyard. They visited the presidential palace and watched the changing of the guard.

They toured a museum dedicated to the history of the country under the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet (“It was heartbreaking to realize what the Chilean people had been through,” Cardona says). And they climbed Cerro San Cristóbal, a hill that overlooks the city, with sweeping views of the wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods, as well as the majestic Andes Mountains in the distance.

“Driving around made you wonder how a place could be so beautiful and in so much trouble at the same time,” Cardona says. Rundown homes often stood alongside luxury high-rises. After the three days, the group traveled by bus to their ultimate destination, Viña del Mar, a seaside town adjacent to Valparaíso.

Host homes had been arranged, and Cardona was surprised not only by the affection that greeted her but also by the makeup of her hosts’ household. In addition to the parents and their three children — ages 12, 8 and 4 — there were three others in the house — two students from northern Chile, who were attending college in Valparaíso, and an American student named Mary. “My host mother assumed that because Mary was a vegetarian, all Americans must be vegetarians,” Cardona remembers with a laugh. “She was really surprised when I told her, ‘No, I actually do eat meat.’”

During the day, the St. Edward’s students took classes and worked on their Capstone projects, in which students choose a current social controversy, then research and analyze it. In the evenings, they returned to eat dinner with their host families and perhaps watch a movie or just relax. Some nights, the students went out on the town with other Chileans. “They loved meeting new people,” Cardona recalls. “The Chileans were very curious about Americans, and it also helped us practice our Spanish.”

Simpson arranged for the students to tutor elementary pupils at a local girls’ school. Cardona was paired with Constanza, a 9-year-old student from a poor neighborhood in Valparaíso. Together, the two created a video about Constanza’s life, with the young girl narrating in her best English and Cardona writing subtitles for the film. The completed videos were screened at a public presentation at the end of the program. Constanza and her fellow students introduced their films in English before a crowd of proud parents.

“As an Education major, I got so much joy out of being able to teach her English, as well as being able to connect with her on a personal level,” Cardona says. She was particularly touched when Constanza began referring to her as mi tia — “my aunt.”

Cardona also found the program connected her with other students from St. Edward’s. She had spent her freshman year at a college in Kansas, then transferred to St. Edward’s just before her sophomore year. “I really didn’t know that many kids from St. Edward’s before I went on this trip,” she says. But the intimacy bred by group travel can result in fast-track friendships. On a short overnight trip to a resort town in Chile, the college students got to know each other not only as students but as adventurers. They rappelled down waterfalls, went hiking, viewed volcanoes from afar, swam in some hot springs, experienced white-water rafting and sang karaoke in multiple restaurants.

Cardona says that while the trip to Chile boosted her interest in international travel, it also made her more excited about returning to campus this fall. She’s eager to reunite with her travel companions.

“Almost from the start, I felt like our group became friends,” she says. “We definitely bonded. By the end of the trip, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t known these people a month before.”

— Joel Hoekstra | Photos by Rick Ramos and Mariano Sfiligoy