France | Arriving in Paris

By Jason Vu

Here it is! After over a week of packing and goodbyes to family and friends, the day was finally here. In around fourteen hours, I would land in Paris where I would be living and studying for the next month. I remember feeling a bit nervous waking up on July 29th with my flight only a few hours away, but more than anything else I was excited. This would be my first time abroad for an extended period of time without family, so I was determined to make the most of this trip. At 1:40pm, after saying one last goodbye to my parents and clearing security, I boarded my plane and within moments I was off.

Nineteen hours later (flight delays…what can you expect), I was at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France. Once I cleared passport control, I made my way to baggage claim to gather my belongings, but after almost half an hour, my checked bag didn’t come out. Confused, I went to the customer assistance desk to ask about my bag, and it turned out that my bag, along with the bags of a third of my flight, had been left behind during our layover in Dallas. We’d get our luggage back within three days, but that still didn’t help my initial anxiety for this trip. Nevertheless, I grabbed the things I did have (good thing I had my carryon bags!) and made my way to the RER train towards Cite Universitaire.

I got to the university in the evening and immediately found myself having to find my way around a new campus environment. As the international university of Paris, the university was divided into separate “maisons” that represented the various nationalities represented on campus such as Belgium, Morocco, and India. The “maison” I’d be staying at was the “Maison du Portugal – André de Gouveia,” dedicated to the great 16th century Portuguese humanist of the Renaissance.


Located at the southernmost part of the university campus, the Maison du Portugal follows a more modern design compared to some of the other residences surrounding us. It was a bit of a walk from the train station, but I was eventually able to check in at the front desk and make my way to my dorm room.

Room 421—my single-bed dorm room (post-nap)


After a light nap and settling in, I finally had the energy to get in touch with my friend on the program to grab some dinner that evening. She reached out to another friend on our program, and the three of us were soon on our way to have our very first meal in Paris together!


In a rush of adventurous energy, we decided not to use our phones to find a restaurant and wander around the neighborhood instead. Luckily, our university was located right next to the 13th arrondissement of Paris, which is known for being home to the city’s own Chinatown. As a result, we eventually found the “Imperial Choisy,” a Michelin-ranked Chinese restaurant only 15 minutes away by walking. We sat down, ordered a few dishes, and celebrated our first night in Paris.

Our meal for the evening: Mapo Tofu, Steamed Chinese Vegetables, and Sichuan Chicken

Stuffed with one of the best meals of our whole trip, we got back to the Maison du Portugal at right about sunset (keep in mind, sunset in Paris was after 9pm). Back in my room, I took a look out of my window facing campus and was met with one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen (picture below). In the last moments of the day, I thought back to my earlier ordeals with flight delays and lost baggage and realized just how small they were compared to one thing—I made it! Months of preparation and paperwork had gone into this moment, making sure I’d get to Paris safe and sound with everything I needed for the next month. And now, I was determined to make the most of it.

Jason studied abroad in France in Summer 2019.

Mexico | Benefits of a Homestay

By Andrea Zheng

I always knew that I wanted to study abroad during my time in college, I just never knew where it would be. After picking up a Spanish minor, it seemed a logical choice to take some upper division Spanish classes abroad. I had always heard good things about the Spain program where you get to visit Barcelona, Madrid, and Granada, so I attended an info session to learn more about the program. 

It was there that I learned about the Merida program. While I was interested in the Spain program because I would have classes in three different cities (and come on, who wouldn’t want to go study in Europe), as soon as I heard that the Merida program had a homestay component to the program, I was sold.

Don’t get me wrong, I was very apprehensive about a homestay, because my Spanish isn’t at the level where I can comprehend and respond Spanish without doing a quick translation in my head and planning (to some extent) what I want to say. However, I believe that there is no better way to fully immerse myself into the culture and improve my Spanish than putting myself in a situation where I would have ample opportunity to practice the language.

Instead of staying in a local hotel, we were each put in a house of a local mamá, in groups of normally two or three. Having others in the house really helped because when I didn’t know what my mama was saying, my roommate was able to help translate and I also had a study buddy just across the hall.

The BIGGEST plus of the homestay was my beyond incredible mamá. From the second I got off the plane, she insisted that I call her “mamá” and in return she always called me “hija” or “child” in Spanish. And that’s how it felt during my time there, as if she was my mom there for a month. I could easily talk to her about anything and everything, from help with school work to what I want to do in the future.

I remember once, we had to do a presentation on Yucatan food in class and wanted to make a traditional dish. Our mama sat with us and brainstormed dishes and once we decided on one, she dictated the recipe to us as we prepared the food. This is just one of the examples of how willing she was to take time out of her day to both spend time with us and help with anything we needed.

Being in an environment where my mamá only spoke to me in Spanish and I in turn responded in Spanish forced me out of my comfort zone. But even though I would sometimes say things incorrectly (and I thank my mamá for only minimally laughing at me when I mixed up words) my confidence in my own ability to speak grew tremendously.

At the beginning of the trip, I would mostly just respond with “si” and the conversation would end there, but by the end of the trip, I was willing to ask follow-up questions or elaborate on answers given. I truly don’t think that my Spanish would have improved as much as it did if I hadn’t done a homestay program where I was constantly surrounded by the opportunity to converse with others in Spanish.

I could never thank my mama enough for how much she made Merida feel like home for me on this trip and having the experience that I did, I can’t imagine doing a study abroad trip that isn’t a homestay program.

Andrea Zheng studied abroad in Merida in Summer 2019.

Mexico | Idea of Convivencia

By Andrea Zheng

The idea of convivencia is something that I learned both in and out of the classroom. Inside the classroom, I learned that the idea has roots in the bull fighting plazas that were typical in Spain. In these plazas, a bull fighter and a bull would be engaged in a dance for all the town to watch. Because everyone is in the same place, at the same time, experiencing the same phenomenon, this is an example of convivencia, the idea of joining together as one to live in the company of others.  

This idea is incredibly important in Mexico and is reflected in the emphasis that the city puts towards holding events that allow the public to engage in convivencia. There are many examples of this simply and beautiful idea of in Merida and I was lucky enough to experience most of them in my time there.

Merida in Domingo

Merida in Domingo is an event that is held every Sunday in the Plaza Grande of downtown Merida. During this event, there are many little vendors that are selling a variety of artisans, from Aztec masks to handmade dresses. It’s an amazing market that brings the town together to spend the morning meandering between vendors, haggling prices down and laughing and talking with friends. 

There are also dance groups performing which offer an opportunity to sit down and enjoy the show, as well as food stands around the perimeter to provide a snack when needed. This was one of my favorite events in Merida because you got to see people of all ages coming together with the simple mission of spending time with one another.

Events put on during the week

Every day in Merida, there is a different event that is put on by the city. For example, Monday nights, the event is named La Vaqueria, which is a performance of traditional folkloric dances. One of the best dances is when they dance with a beer bottle on their head, balancing this while gliding across the stones of the Plaza Grande. For someone with two left feet, watching this mind-blowing. The fact that these performers are willing to share this passion to unify the public perfectly demonstrates the idea of convivencia to me.

The other days of the week, there are light shows of the history of Mexico projected onto a building, re-enactments of the ancient ball game where players hit a ball into the hoop using only their hips, and bike rides down the famous Paseo Montejo. The fact that something is organized by the city every day shows the importance that the city places on events that bring the public together to enjoy a common experience.

Meals with our mamá

When our amazing mamá made us meals, she would often sit with us regardless of whether or not she had eaten already. This was because she wanted to interact with us, asking about our days and filling us in on how she was doing.

I would see this also when our mamá invited her family over to her house. When it came time for food, the conversations would continue long past when the food was finished. This really showed me the importance of quality time with loved ones and demonstrated the importance of family and a support system to people in Mexico.

I chose to write about convivencia because it’s one of the most important things I learned while in Merida. Sometimes people can get so caught up in their busy lives that they forget the small things like checking in with friends or having a meal where the phone is off and all the attention is on dedicating time to spend with others. I find myself guilty of this at times, but being able to experience convivencia in Merida reminded me that I need to make time to spend with those that I love because nothing can replace those in-person interactions.

Andrea Zheng studied abroad in Merida in Summer 2019.

Mexico | Did Someone Say Food

By Andrea Zheng

Not going to lie, this is one of the things that I was looking forward to the most during this trip. As a big fan of Mexican food (and just food in general) I was excited to try anything and everything that the Yucatan peninsula had to offer. Because this was a homestay program, a lot of the meals that I ate during this month were made by my host mamá.

For breakfast, there were classic dishes like chilaquilas, crepes, or fruit. Our mama would also prepare a pitcher of juice for my roommates and a cup of coffee for me.

One interesting thing about Mexico is that lunch is their “heavy” meal, meaning that this is when people will typically eat the most food. This is in contrast to the US, where dinner is the heaviest meal with the most food. With so much to eat for lunch, dinner is relatively light, meaning some empanadas, toast with Nutella or jam, or something like that.

There are a few dishes that are special to the Yucatan peninsula and below are two examples, one that our mamá cooked for us and one that we prepared ourselves.  

Cochinita Pibil

Cochinita pibil or “small pig under the ground” is a dish that is typically eaten on Sundays in the Yucatan peninsula. It gets its name because the Mayans would cook the meat in a small hole in the ground, placing a pot over a fire and then covering it with earth to give the meat inside a smoky flavor. The meat is then used as the protein for a variety of different dishes, like tacos or panuchos.  


One of the days during class, we got to take a cooking class in the kitchen at our school. They showed us a variety of food that was typical to the Yucatan peninsula and then we made a dish called Panuchos.

Panuchos have a base of a deep-fried tortilla that is stuffed with a black bean paste and then topped with meat and any other toppings desired. To make these, we took a prepared dough ball and formed the traditional tortilla shape and thickness using a tortilla press. We then put this tortilla into a vat of oil, allowing the tortilla to puff up on both sides before taking it out to cool. We then topped off our creation with guacamole, pickled onion, and salsa.

The only downside that I found with food in Merida is that they don’t use a lot of vegetables in their dishes. As someone who is VERY accustomed to having at least one veggie option, if not the whole meal veggie, this was definitely an adjustment that I had to make in my diet. But there was a Walmart close by if I ever needed groceries and I could always snack on frozen mangoes (HIGHLY recommend).

When eating out, I definitely found the food to be a lot cheaper than I was used to here. One of my favorites was a little taco stand down the street that had amazing al pastor tacos for around 10 pesos, which converts to around 50 cents. Needless to say, lots of tacos were consumed during this trip.

Click HERE to see a gallery of the different types of food that I had during my time in Merida. This isn’t a comprehensive album of the food, as some dishes were consumed before I even remembered to take a picture (whoops).

Andrea Zheng studied abroad in Merida in Summer 2019.

Mexico | A (Sea)Weed Infestation

By Andrea Zheng

This past week we drove out to the other coast of the Yucatan Peninsula to go to Xcaret, Puerto Aventuras, and Tulum.

Xcaret is basically a giant water amusement park/wildlife sanctuary. They have everything from a lazy river to a manatee habit to a beach to lay out on. It was impossible to do everything in the park, so we first went down the lazy river (which was extra lazy due to the large hordes of people in there) and then walked through some animal exhibits to see butterflies, birds of prey, among others.

There was a lunch buffet included and let me tell you, that lunch buffet was INSANELY good, with all you can drink horchata and enough ceviche to fill you for days. After that, we decided to go hang out in some hammocks (no pun intended) to allow the food coma to pass over.

When night hit and the park cleared, we made our way over to the show that the park puts on. It started off with some of the history of Mexico and then went into dances and music from different regions in Mexico. It was amazing to see the distinctly different styles from each part of Mexico, with each dance group coming out to cheers from the audience that was from each respective region.

Because it took around 4 hours to get to the other side of the peninsula, we stayed on that side for the weekend, with each pair of two getting a hotel room in Puerto Aventuras. The next day was free time in that same city, exploring the small resort town, but mainly laying out on the beach (you seeing a theme here?).

The final day was spent in Tulum, an ancient Mayan port. This was potentially one of the hottest days of our whole trip and with no shade coverage, we were all drenched in sweat by the time our walking tour was over. Normally, an easy solution for this would be to jump into the bright blue beautiful water that Tulum is known for, but that wasn’t the case today.

Quintana Roo, the state of Mexico that houses Tulum as well as cities like Playa del Carmen and Cancun, has been experiencing a seaweed problem this year. Once pristine beaches with clear water are now being overtaken by rotten egg smelling seaweed, ruling out any trip that I would have wanted to make to the beach. Instead I downed a water bottle and reapplied sunscreen for the hundredth time.

All of our cultural excursions have shown us that the Yucatan Peninsula is a mix of the past with the present, with ancient ruins mixed in with modernized cities. It was amazing to learn about the history of Mexico in a class setting and then be able to go to the actual sites and see real life examples of things we were discussing in class just days before.

This was our final weekend in Merida and I’m honestly not ready to leave yet (or to take this final next week). Next time I write I’ll be back in the US, so for now, adios from Mexico! 

Andrea Zheng studied abroad in Merida in Summer 2019.

Mexico | A Weekend Getaway

By Andrea Zheng

Hey guys! This past weekend, we had our free weekend during this program where we didn’t have any cultural excursions planned, meaning we had lots of free time to explore Mexico. As long as you let your teacher know where you are planning to go, you are free to go anywhere you want, as long as you can get back in time for class on Monday.

A group of my classmates and I decided to go to Playa del Carmen for the weekend, because you can never have too many beaches. We talked to our mamá about it beforehand because she wanted to help with the logistics of the trip and had lots of advice to give based on past experiences. There are only a few things that you need to plan in order to be able to organize a trip like this.

First, we had to get a bus ticket. The bus company ADO has travel buses that leave from various stops around Merida with a variety of different destinations around Mexico. Next, we booked an Airbnb that could accommodate 12 people because it’s MUCH cheaper than staying at a resort. After that, we just had to coordinate with everyone to make sure they knew the logistics of the trip. And that’s pretty much it!

Before we got on the bus, we had to get some snacks (because what’s a road trip without snacks). The bus ride was around 5 hours so by the time we got there, it was already night time, so we made our way to the Airbnb (after getting even more food).

When we booked our Airbnb, we thought it was a house with 8 rooms and 12 beds, but it ended up being an entire apartment complex that had 8 separate rooms, each with a kitchen, bedroom, and different bed setup. No complaints here.

The next day, a couple of us got up and made a little breakfast buffet, with breakfast tacos, fruit, and juice. This is a reason I liked the Airbnb setup because it gave us the freedom to make whatever food we wanted instead of hunting for a place to eat. After grabbing some food, what else was there to do but go to the beach! 

Besides the usual laying out, there were different aquatic activities you can do, like parasailing and snorkeling, or you can do what I did and just rent a beach chair and umbrella and get in some tanning time.

The rest of the day we were able to explore Playa del Carmen, walking down Avenue 5, which is a street filled with shops and restaurants, and hang out in the pool at the Airbnb. The next day we cleaned up the Airbnb and headed back on the same bus we came on.

This free weekend gave us an amazing opportunity to explore a part of Mexico that we didn’t get to see during the cultural excursions. I would definitely recommend planning a trip during the free weekend; just make sure that you get the logistics done ahead of time so you aren’t scrambling to organize a trip at the last second. Places that other people visited this weekend were Tulum, Cozumel, and Progreso, which are all great options to look into as well.

Now to get back to the real world and get ready for class tomorrow. Check back for updates after this week’s excursions!

Andrea Zheng studied abroad in Merida in Summer 2019.

Mexico | Chickens, Flamingoes, and Other Birds

By Andrea Zheng

It’s week 2 and we had our first midterm this week (ya, a midterm after 6 days of class. Life moves fast here.). But with that over, it was time to go to Chichén-Itzá, Izamal, and Celestún!

The first stop was the world famous Chichén-Itzá, or “at the mouth of the well of the water sorcerer” (or as our tour guide called it: Chicken Pizza). One of the seven wonders of the world, Chichén-Itzá is one of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Mexico. On the day that we went, there were so many tour groups bustling around, with guides speaking a variety of languages.

It was here that I learned how advanced the Mayans were in their architecture and knowledge of the world around them. The main pyramid, the Castillo Templo, was built in such a way that at a specific time during the two Spring and Fall equinoxes, the sun would come through the pyramid to create the image of a snake slithering down the side of the temple. This image was made to honor one of the Mayan gods, Kulkulcan, the plumed serpent god.

I thought this was incredible because ancient civilizations are often thought of as not advanced, but this shows how much the Mayans figured out about natural phenomena like the movement of the sun.

After Chichén-Itzá, we went to Izamal, a small city that is painted entirely yellow. It is thought that the city was painted yellow before Pope John Paul II visited Izamal in 1993 to make the city look pretty and clean. It was truly amazing to be pulled down the streets in our horse drawn carriages and see building after building a bright yellow. There is also another temple here (that we of course climbed) dedicated to the god Kinich Kak Moo, the Mayan sun god.

The next day we headed out to Celestún, a small beach town that is home to a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals. When we visited, it was just the right time to see the flamingoes that pass through the area while following their migration patterns. I never realized how weird of an animal flamingoes are, with their skinny knees and almost too flexible necks.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re incredibly beautiful animals, just a little funky looking. It was incredible to drive in our speedboat around the surrounding wetlands to see the flocks of flamingoes, but no matter how many pictures I tried to take, it didn’t do them justice.

The rest of the day was spent by the beach (just how I like it). We have a free Saturday and Sunday now and a few of us have planned a trip to Playa del Carmen, so click HERE to read more about how that trip went!

Andrea Zheng studied abroad in Merida in Summer 2019.

Mexico | Typical Day in the Life

By Andrea Zheng

After a week of being here, I have settled into somewhat of a routine from the craziness of figuring out this new city. A big component of this program is of course the classroom content that you will be learning, so I’m going to outline what a typical school day looks like! Keep in mind that I am taking the Spanish 150/170 class, so I will be mainly focusing on that class but the structure is very similar for the other classes as well.

Classes generally run Monday through Thursday (with some exceptions) and begin at 9 AM at Tecnología Turística Total in downtown Merida. It will vary depending on the location of your house, but my roommates and I typically got up around 7:00 AM (more like 7:15 AM for me) to get ready for school.

Our mamá would always make us breakfast in the morning before sending us off to catch the bus, which is the mode of transportation for us to get to school. The mamás show us the bus route before we have to take it by ourselves, so don’t worry if you (like me) are clueless to the public transport system.

Like I said before, class begins at 9 AM and will last until 1 PM on a typical day. During this time, my teacher (Professor Falce-Robinson) would go over the readings that we did the previous night using discussion questions. I really like her style of teaching, because instead of lecturing at us, we would use discussion among small groups and then the class as a whole.

A four-hour class would be exhausting to sit through in its entirety, so we get a break 30-minute break halfway through class. Because we are in a downtown area with lots of little shops, a lot of people will walk to Starbucks to get their caffeine fill or to a local grocery shop to get a little snack before heading back to the second part of class.

After class is over, it’s time to head home for lunch. Our mamá was amazing and would make sure that lunch was ready by the time our hungry selves came home from school. After a big lunch, what else is there to do but take a siesta! Normally, there will be a thunderstorm with rain going on anyway, so it’s the perfect time to take a little nap to pass the time.

This is also a good time to get the reading done for the next day (or in the case of the other two classes MySpanishLab). A tip I would give to future students is to get as much homework done before the program as possible, as this will leave you so much more time to explore the city. There’s nothing worse than having to stay in for homework while your classmates are out and about.

Once the homework is done and the rain clears, we generally grab a quick bite to eat for dinner and then we have free time to do whatever we want.

This is of course a very rough outline that can change based on the day, but hopefully this gave you guys some idea about how a normal day passes here. The teachers are very good about making sure the students are understanding the content, given that it is a very fast-paced learning environment and they will sometimes even hold office hours before midterms. They understand that an important part of the program is experiencing the culture and tradition of the city, not just being cooped up doing homework, and that reflects in the course load.

This is how a typical Monday through Thursday week looks, so what do we do the days we don’t have class you ask? Well check out the blogs about Cultural Excursions to see the amazing trips that we get to go on!

Andrea Zheng studied abroad in Merida in Summer 2019.

Mexico | Underground, Twice

By Andrea Zheng

This past week we had our first weekend of excursions! Every week, we have a set of places that we go to around the Yucatan peninsula and this week it was Lol-tún, Uxmal, and Cenotes Cuzamá. Our first destination, Lol-tún, is a cave that translate to “Flower Stone” in the Mayan language. There were many uses for this cave, including as a shelter to hide in and a source of clay, which the ancient Mayans used to make tools. There is also physical evidence of the Mayans use of this place because there are hand prints on the cave walls along with drawings of animals.

One of the coolest things in Lol-tún is when all the lights go off. Although the Mayans used to move through the cave using torch light, the cave is now illuminated by path lights so that tourists don’t get lost in the dark. But there was a moment when our tour guide turned off all the lights and it was one of the craziest experiences ever.

I had never before been somewhere where I had my eyes wide open but still could not see a thing, as there is normally at least some light filtering in. Not a single person moved when it was dark because you lose all sense of your body in space.

Back in the sunlight, we continued on to our second location, Uxmal. Uxmal is an ancient Mayan city that translates to “three times built” in the Mayan language. Something that I learned during our tour was that the pyramid that we saw on the outside wasn’t the only pyramid in that exact spot.

When the Mayans wanted to build a new pyramid, instead of building a new one, they would just build around the old one, incasing the old pyramid into the new one. This means that there is a Russian nesting doll situation with the pyramids that we see today.

We were also able to climb up the tallest pyramids, which gave us an incredible view of the area surrounding Uxmal. Because I know that I’m really clumsy and prone to tripping, I was very wary to climb the EXTREMELY steep pyramid. Thankfully, I made it down unscathed and was able to continue onto the next day’s excursion, Cenotes Cuzamá.

Cenotes are natural pits of water that are below ground. There are a lot of cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula, but only some are accessible to the public. (Apparently, there was even a cenote in the Costco parking lot in Merida but I never got to see it). Some of the more accessible cenotes have been commercialized and have become popular tourist destinations, like the Cenotes in Cuzamá.

Here, there were four different cenotes, so we were able to walk to each of the different ones and float around for a little bit. Apparently all cenotes are connected by underwater tunnels, but I wasn’t about to dive down and test that theory.

It was a fun (and tiring) weekend and first week here in Merida so I’m looking forward to getting some sleep before tackling another week.

Andrea Zheng studied abroad in Merida in Summer 2019.

Guam | Pagat

By Tecpatl Kuauhtzin

Our last class field trip was to Pagat, a beautiful area with historical knowledge weaved into the land. Uncle Joe, my mentor from the Guam Preservation Trust, took my entire class down to visit the land and waters. Professor Camacho also went, which made me happy because I was able to hike with him. Not often do students at UCLA get to hike with their professors, but Professor Camacho is one of the great ones.

The entire hike was about an hour long, and it went from jungle to coast. It was amazing being with such knowledgeable people. When we reached the cave, we took a few minutes to re-center ourselves before going in. It was a really cool experience being able to walk in. I took my camera in my bag and when we reached the deeper part of the water while going in, I had to hold it against the rocks. I was having such a good time that I didn’t realize I had my wallet in my pockets, and the water was waist deep, lol!

I made this image while looking out a few steps in.

The cave was extremely dark and the water was fresh. the echo inside was incredible. Many of us took out or flashlights and cameras to try to take a few pictures, but they were mostly grainy. Unfortunately, while we were in there a group of tourists came in yelling and laughing very disrespectfully. Their tour guide was Chamoru but did not seem to care, and in fact was motivating them to do so. After multiple times of us asking them to be more quiet, Uncle Joe spoke to their tour guide. He expressed that he did not care, and was rather disrespectful. This was hard to witness, as I can relate and have been in situations where our sacred sites at home are disrespected by tourists.

This is an image of Uncle Joe after we exited the cave. As we headed down to the coast, I asked him to pose, and he did so with grace! lol.

When we finally reached the coast, I was amazed to see a natural hole in the rock formations. Dan, a local student that was with us, told us that Chamoru youth jump off from here often. It can be dangerous, but if you know where to jump it will be fine he explained. I would be lying if I said I did not think about jumping, but I figured my professor would probably not let me, haha. I had a blast nonetheless.