UH Hilo undergraduates return home from study abroad programs in Europe

In life-changing experiences, the students learned about culture and doing business in the heart of the European Union.

By Leah Sherwood.

Xandria Akau with Eiffel Tower in background.
Study abroad student Xandria Akau at the Trocadéro with a view of the Eiffel Tower, Paris, France. Courtesy photo.

A group of University of Hawai‘i at Hilo students have returned home from Europe after participating in a two-country summer program. Ten undergraduates were awarded a Transatlantic Mobility Scholarship that supported them in their studies of economics, politics, history, communication, and culture. The students spent three weeks in Angers, France, then traveled to Brussels, Belgium, and finally to Paris, France.

The students are Charisma Felipe, Francine Andrei Gallego, Niah Maui, Annika Otterson, Kara Spaulding, Onosa‘i Va‘a, Yesica Avendano Villanueva, Sienna Wareham, Jojo Balagot, and Makeila May.

Group photo of students on campus with greenery and red-roofed buildings in background.
Home from their studies in Europe are UH Hilo students (front from left) Francine Andrei Gallego, Yesica Avendano-Villanueva, Charisma Felipe, Quiana Duarte, and Jojo Balagot. (Back) Xandria Akau, Annika Otterson, Makeila May, and Onosa‘i Va‘a.
Carolina Lam
Carolina Lam

The ESSCA School of Management, an international partner of UH Hilo, runs the four-week program, which includes trips to cultural heritage sites, visits to the European Commission and European Parliament, and accommodations in Paris coinciding with Bastille Day. The students learned about European economics, the history of the European Union, international and cross-cultural communication, and French culture.

Carolina Lam, a UH Hilo alumna and director of global education at the UH Hilo Center for Global Education and Exchange, and Emmeline De Pillis, interim dean of the UH Hilo College of Business and Economics, collaborated to secure a $20,000 grant from the French embassy in Washington, D.C., to fund the $2,000 scholarship to each student. The scholarship covered the cost of airfare and in-country fees such as housing and transportation costs. UH Hilo students who participated in the program are eligible to receive six upper-division elective credits in business.

Emmeline de Pillis
Emmeline de Pillis

Lam says study abroad and exchange experiences are unique and life-changing for the students. “You cannot replicate with technology the smells and sounds and the five senses of travelling,” she says. “The opportunity to study abroad as an undergraduate student plants the seed for more exploration and curiosity about the world. The journey doesn’t stop after their study abroad experience but rather is the starting point for further discovery and conversation.”

De Pillis says the experience of traveling to a different country is instructional in itself. “The students experienced trying unfamiliar food, asking directions in a foreign language, missing a bus and figuring out another way to get to one’s destination,” she says. “Most of the students were business majors, but some were not. The program was a great opportunity for the students to get to know each other as well as to learn about doing business in the heart of the European Union.”

Jojo Balagot

Jojo Balacot with Eiffel Tower in background.
Jojo Balagot near the Eiffel Tower, Paris, France. Courtesy photo.

Jojo Balagot, a UH Hilo sophomore majoring in psychology, says he learned a lot from his classmates about business, but that they learned from him as well. “I was one of the youngest people in my group, who were from Mexico, Canada, the Philippines and the United States,” he says. “But we answered their questions about Hawai‘i and showed them Hawai‘i and Hilo on the map.”

The scholarship enabled Balagot to learn about European history, politics, and culture in a much deeper way than reading the material in a textbook. “Being there and going to the locations is so much different than reading about it,” says Balagot. “We learned about the European Union, and at one point we were able to see the arrival of all the European diplomats and watch them walk the red carpet to a major meeting, while all the news media were there.”

Balagot never thought that he would go to France and it was definitely not without its challenges. “The language was hard to understand; we were always using Siri to interact with people,” he says. “Plus, I am used to rice with all my meals, but over there meals only come with potatoes. But I had a motto: For the experience! So I tried and did everything.”

Xandrai Akau

Xandria Akau with Eiffel Tower in background.
Xandria Akau at the Trocadéro with a great view of the Eiffel Tower, Paris, France. Courtesy photo.

UH Hilo undergraduate Xandria Akau, a senior majoring in business administration, was able to participate in a different program after winning a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. Akau was able to pursue her interest in international luxury marketing and business at the Ecole de Management in Paris, France.

Akau, a graduate of Kamehameha Schools on Hawai‘i Island, says that this was the first time she ventured out alone to a new place. “At first it was kind of nerve-wracking because I went all by myself. In the end it was worth it. I met other people who were alone too, and we were all forced to put ourselves out there and become more independent, more open-minded and more willing to try new things.”

The program also introduced her to diverse individuals who changed the way she thought. “My classmates were from all over the world. Working on group-based projects together allowed me to think differently because of the wide variety of perspectives in the group,” she says.

Both Akau and Balagot agree that the four weeks flew by in an instant and that if the scholarships allowed for it they would have stayed longer in Europe. “I want to keep travelling, there is so much to see and to experience,” says Balagot. “I am already filling out my next application.”


Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

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