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Science Education Student Elizabeth Vanegas ’22 Gains Global Perspective Through Study Abroad Experience in Prague

Elizabeth Vanegas

Elizabeth Vanegas ‘22, a senior science education major and Goodnight Scholar, started looking into studying abroad while she was still in high school. She watched countless travel-related YouTube videos, and when she arrived at NC State, she applied to study abroad in Spain during the summer of 2020.

Then, the pandemic hit, and the trip was canceled. But Vanegas was undeterred, and she applied to a summer study abroad in Prague during the summer of 2021. That trip was canceled, too. So, Vanegas transferred her application to study abroad in Prague in the fall of 2021, and her perseverance finally paid off. 

“The second I landed, I was just like, ‘Well, I’m really doing this for the next three and a half months,’” Vanegas said. “I can’t believe this. I definitely had those moments, like multiple times where I was like, ‘Oh, I’m really in Prague right now.’”

Upon arrival, Vanegas isolated for the night before taking a rapid test the next morning, which ended her quarantine. Then, she was free to explore. Vanegas grew up in Sanford, North Carolina, and while she loves her hometown, she was thrilled by the opportunity to experience Prague. 

“The city itself is so beautiful,” Vanegas said. “It was also surreal having the campus building being in the middle of the Old Town Square. Even now, I can’t fathom how NC State pulled that location off. Right after class, I could go walk through the Old Town Square or I could go to the Charles Bridge.” 

With assistance from staff at the NC State European Center in Prague, Vanegas and the other students obtained digital European Union COVID-19 vaccine passports, which simplified travel throughout the Czech Republic and the rest of Europe. So, on the weekends, Vanegas ventured outside of Prague, taking trips within the Czech Republic and to other European cities such as Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Vienna and Amsterdam. 

Vanegas also went on a number of trips through her classes. As part of PY 123: Stellar and Galactic Astronomy, she traveled to the Astronomical Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences in Ondřejov. In EDP 370: Applied Child Development, taught by NC State College of Education alumnus, former NC State College of Education instructor and Czech Republic native Ondřej Pešout ’17PHD, she was able to visit a Czech kindergarten.

“Every class brought a unique experience to my experience in the Czech Republic,” said Vanegas. “Every class I had a field trip, which was so cool, because I never get to have field  trips in college.”

She found those experiences enriching not only on a personal level, but also on a professional one, as she prepares for her future role as an educator. For example, at the Czech kindergarten, Vanegas gained new insights into what education looks like around the world.

“At the Czech school, what I thought was so interesting was the children get a lot of autonomy over their time,” Vanegas said. “They kind of get to choose what they want  to do at certain times. So things like that were just really interesting; just the difference in schedule.” 

Through excursions with her astronomy class, she was able to look at science in a whole new way, an experience she hopes to share with her future students.

“Being able to actually witness where the history was made with the scientific discoveries was amazing,” Vanegas said. “And I never thought I would feel so connected to it until I actually was able to experience that. So I would just hope that I can push students to think about that outside world a little bit more.”

When the semester was up, Vanegas took a COVID test to ensure she was negative and returned home to North Carolina. Now, she has the opportunity to take what she learned in Prague and apply it to the classroom, as she completes her student teaching this spring.

“I really hope to just show the kids pictures of the places I saw where history was being made,” Vanegas said. “Science is always evolving, it’s something that forever connects us to things like that. (Johannes) Kepler, he lived in Europe hundreds of years ago, and we’re still talking about him. So just reminding students that science really does change the world, and you find pieces of science everywhere.”

But beyond sharing her love of science with her students, Vanegas wants to help them broaden their horizons the same way she did when she was finally able to fulfill her dream of studying abroad. 

“I hope to push students to be fearless in terms of traveling or exploring things outside of their own home, because they never know what they’re going  to discover,” Vanegas said.