Visiting Zamorano University students embrace Penn State experience

Gabriela Ferrer and Gabriel Somarriba were among a group of students from Zamorano University in Honduras who studied at Penn State during the spring semester. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Students from Zamorano University in Honduras experienced a taste of American culture and college life by studying at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences during the spring 2019 semester.

The students — two food science and technology majors and four agricultural sciences and production majors — participated in a capstone internship program, during which they gained valuable research and educational experiences. They also attended University sporting events, traveled around the state, and enjoyed downtown State College.

Located in the Yeguaré Valley outside of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, Zamorano University is a leading agricultural school in Latin America. The institution enrolls about 1,200 students, and its curriculum focuses on academic excellence, learning-by-doing, and diversity through Pan-American culture.

In the College of Agricultural Sciences’ Office of International Programs, Assistant Research Professor Paige Castellanos explained that several faculty members and departments at Penn State are involved in the Zamorano internship program.

Castellanos' involvement began as project manager for Penn State’s Women in Agriculture Network (WAgN): Honduras, a project supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Horticulture Innovation Lab at the University of California, Davis. This project is focused on empowering women through horticulture production and has sponsored nine Zamorano interns to travel to Penn State over the last three years.

“Penn State has a long history of working with Zamorano,” Castellanos said. “Aside from the internship program, graduates of the university come to Penn State to complete master’s degrees or doctoral degrees. It’s wonderful to work with the interns. Within our program, it’s been a great cultural experience. The students have a good grasp of English when they come, but it’s incredible to watch their vocabulary explode during their time here.”

Castellanos added that Zamorano students benefit from meeting other undergraduates, attending classes, and gaining lab experience.

“There’s an impact on the Zamorano students and the Penn State students through cultural exchange,” Castellanos said. “It’s such a positive experience for everyone. For Penn State, having a relationship with a university that is so strong in agriculture in Latin America is mutually beneficial to both institutions.”

Senior food science and technology students Gabriel Somarriba and Gabriela Ferrer said their semester at Penn State was packed with new experiences. They participated in short courses such as dairy processing and sensory evaluation, sat in on an “Introduction to Agriculture” course, attended statewide industry conferences, and assisted graduate students with research. One of those was Allison Brown, a doctoral candidate in food science, who also is part of the International Agriculture and Development dual-title degree program in the college.

Somarriba, who grew up in Nicaragua, is studying dairy sciences at Zamorano. During his sophomore year, he met Brown and Helene Hopfer, assistant professor of food science at Penn State, who were visiting Zamorano University to talk about the opportunity for students to study at Penn State.

“I really like dairy products and Penn State has the Creamery, so it seemed like it would be a good fit for me,” he said.

Ferrer, of El Salvador, said she knew that Penn State had a long history in agricultural sciences, and she is very interested in food science.

"I like learning about cocoa and chocolate production, so I knew this would be a good opportunity,” she said.

Senior food science and technology students Gabriela Ferrer and Gabriel Somarriba of Zamorano University said their semester at Penn State was packed with new experiences.  Credit: Allison BrownAll Rights Reserved.

Hopfer worked closely with the students, saying she had fun getting to know their personalities and strengths.

“As we worked together, we learned about their home countries, their career dreams, and how they see the world,” she said.

“I truly treasure these multicultural interactions as they teach all of us how to become better communicators through better listening. Both Gabriela and Gabriel have worked hard throughout their stay. They have a better idea of academic research and were able to figure out if an advanced degree, potentially at Penn State, could be something to consider.”

Part of Zamorano’s pedagogy includes a “learn-by-doing” approach to the agricultural sciences, so students spend half of the day in class, with the other half spent working in the various processing plants and facilities on campus. 

“The students make the ice cream, cheese and other products. We even milk the cows,” Somarriba said.

The students agreed Zamorano’s dairy/creamery is comparable in size to the operation at Penn State, but that Penn State’s has more automation.

Both Somarriba and Ferrer said they would like to attend graduate school in the future.

“I want to work before grad school to get a better idea what it’s like working in industry,” said Ferrer, whose main areas of interest are microbiology and food safety. “I want to experience the challenges firsthand so I see what ways my work could benefit my country.”

Somarriba noted that he hopes to return to Penn State for graduate studies.

“Even when I applied for this program, I didn’t want to keep studying, but doing research at Penn State has shown me how more learning could be helpful,” he said. "I want to conduct research and help people. I’m grateful to everyone at Penn State. They were so nice and helped me grow and become more professional.”

Ferrer echoed these sentiments and added that she is glad she got involved in Penn State’s student culture. She and the other Zamorano students attended hockey games, visited restaurants and other venues in State College, and went to the Blue-White football game.

“We didn’t know anyone here, and people were so willing to help us find our place,” she said. “And thanks to Penn State for having us — the experience was really, really good.”

Last Updated June 07, 2019