Student News

Education Abroad Program Immerses Students in Hawaiian Culture

Group of students in front of local waterfall
Group of students

LEXINGTON, Ky. (April 4, 2022)  The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted students, faculty and staff in profound ways. It has impacted how we learn, teach and work, and for many in the University of Kentucky community, it impacted the ability to explore the world and grow by studying abroad.

With international travel restricted, Courtney Luecking and Liz Combs of UK’s Dietetics and Human Nutrition department developed a winter 2022 domestic study away program for students that would allow them to experience a distinct culture, helping them grow as students and individuals.

“International travel was going to be restricted again,” said Combs. “So how do we immerse students in a distinct culture when we’re limited to domestic travel? From there, the answer was simple: Hawaii.”

Combs and Luecking worked with Education Abroad staff to develop the program, scheduling the course for winter 2022. “Education Abroad staff were amazing to work with and fully supported us along the way in getting this program off the ground,” said Combs.

The 12-day program titled “The Spirit of Aloha: A Lived Practice of Mind, Heart, and Health in Hawaii” took students to Oahu, as well as the big island of Hawaii. The course explored the influence of relationships, the environment, and cultural factors on health and wellness. The program featured sustainable food systems, visits to several of Hawaii’s natural wonders, and connections with Hawaiian people.

While planning for the course, though, Combs and Luecking wanted students to avoid the trap of becoming tourists. They wanted them to be engaged with the local culture and developed coursework and an itinerary around this central tenet. 

“In planning the coursework, we obviously focused on health and wellness in Hawaii, but we also used that as a branching-off point to talk about some of the history and inequity present there,” said Luecking. “We wanted our students to go in with eyes wide open, ready to experience this culture.”

Once in Hawaii, Combs and Luecking marveled as students fully devoted themselves to the experience and thought of each and every moment as a learning opportunity.

“I was really proud of how our students soaked it all in,” said Luecking. “I’ve spoken with our students since returning, and I think they’re actually more appreciative now that they’ve returned home and had the opportunity to reflect and compare a bit to how they normally live and how we lived while we were there.”

Combs and Luecking also credit the local guides the group interacted with daily with helping students fully integrate. 

“Our three guides were incredible,” said Combs. “They were always available for our students, who would sit with them and ask them about their lived experiences in Hawaii. After the program ended, our students said that one of the key ways they learned while away was in those interactions with our guides.”

“I watched our students take their so-called ‘downtime’ and use it to talk to the guides and ask them questions,” said Luecking. “I could not have been prouder of our students in those moments.”

Since returning, Combs and Luecking have reflected on the impact the program had on students and the powerful results of studying away.

“It was a wonderful opportunity for our students to disconnect a bit from what things have been like for the past two years and to learn and grow in this awesome way,” said Luecking. “It was really powerful.”

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.