It was the summer of 2013, and Ocean Township resident Hunter Koperweis was looking for an opportunity to travel before officially enrolling at Brookdale the following fall. He had heard of a ten-day study abroad program in Brazil, led by Brookdale faculty and the college’s International Education Center, and decided to give it a shot.
That trip, he said, would radically change the way he saw the world, and himself in it.
“At first I thought it would be a casual vacation, but then I found out it was a volunteer program,” said Koperweis, who went on to serve as a teacher’s assistant in Brazil, working with poverty-stricken children between the ages of six months and one year. “That trip had an enormous impact on my view of the world, because the kids I worked with had absolutely nothing, but they appreciated everything they had.
“It helped me appreciate the little things like a hot shower or running water, which still are unfathomable to millions people throughout the world,” he added. “I knew prior to going on that trip I wanted to help people in any way possible, and now I am doing that.”
After completing his studies in business administration at Brookdale this May, Koperweis decided to continue his international work by enrolling in a summer internship with Kalu Yala, a coalition of developers, professionals and student interns who are working to build a thriving, sustainable town in Panama.
The Kalu Yala settlement, which sits in the Tres Brazos Valley roughly one hour outside of Panama City, brings together local residents, innovators, scientists, teachers, students and other professionals to create a self-sustaining community, relying on natural resources, local agriculture, state-of-the-art design concepts and homegrown businesses to support the growing community.
Koperweis is one of 70 interns working with Kalu Yala this summer, each tasked with supporting a different initiative.
“There are several different programs ranging from design-thinking, biology, culinary, outdoor recreation, community development and health,” said Koperweis. “The program I am a part of is ‘Business Entrepreneurship and Environmental Sustainability,’ which is trying to create an economy for this new community.
“Previous interns have implemented things like soup production and tours of the town. My project is creating a tea garden that will be available to all that live in the valley, and one day these teas will be sold in Panama City and across the world. And they are not your typical types of tea, because many of the ingredients are only indigenous to this part of the globe.”
In his downtime from work, Koperweis never stops moving. This month he joined a team of 20 interns to help build a new hostel on Red Frog Island, constructing furniture, art installations, and landscaping for a local Kalu Yala partner.
He has also been able to travel during his 10-plus weeks abroad, visiting Panama City, Playa Venao, San Blas, Bocas Del Toro and the Chriqui Cloud Forest. In an email from a Chriqui hostel, the 20-year-old took time out to reflect on his travels and his decision – back in 2013 – to pursue an international education.
“I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, which I dabbled a bit with when I went to Brazil,” he said. “Working abroad is something that I have always wanted to do, and this only solidifies that mindset even more. This experience has taught me so much already. I have met so many amazing people and learned so many amazing things. I have always loved traveling, and I know this is not the last time I will come to Panama or Central America.”
After completing his internship at the end of July, Koperweis plans to visit Costa Rica and Nicaragua before returning to New Jersey next month. Following only two days at home, however, he will once again be on the move. This time he’ll be headed for Colorado, where he plans to study Business Administration and Environmental Sustainability at Western State Colorado University in the fall.
“If I could say anything to future Brookdale students about studying abroad, it would be to ‘DO IT!'” said Koperweis. “Studying abroad is a little scary at first, but there are so many amazing and interesting people out there doing the same thing you are. All everyone wants to do is learn and grow as a person, because traveling helps you build upon who you already are. I know it helped me figure out who I am as a person.”
To learn more about Brookdale’s Study Abroad programs, click here.
Check out more photos of Hunter Koperweis’s journeys here.
Photos courtesy of Hunter Koperweis.