For Maya Weinberg ’19, learning has never been limited to the classroom. After graduating from high school, Weinberg knew she needed to move beyond the classroom to gain additional experience before enrolling in a university to pursue her undergraduate degree. “I grew up in Chapel Hill and had never meaningfully interacted with other communities, so I decided to take a gap year to work and live overseas,” Weinberg says. “UNC has an established relationship with Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, and at the time I was really interested in studying geography and human-environment interactions, so I spent four months conducting research at the Galápagos Science Center.”
It was in Ecuador – where Weinberg mapped human development such as housing and businesses to create a report demonstrating the impact of the tourist industry on economic development in the area – that Weinberg first learned about the Institute for the Study of the Americas at UNC-Chapel Hill and decided to return to her hometown to pursue a degree in Latin American studies. While at Carolina, Weinberg began working with the Carolina Campus Community Garden and volunteering with the Chapel Hill Farmers’ Market, two experiences that shaped a focus for her studies.
“Many of the people who access produce from the [Carolina Campus Community Garden] are immigrants, and learning about immigrant populations, food production and Latin American culture piqued my interest in food security,” says Weinberg, who is currently working on a senior thesis surrounding agricultural production in Mexico. “Latin America and the U.S. are so intertwined, I felt a fascination with working in a country that my own country has had such an in-depth relationship with.”
Throughout her time at UNC-Chapel Hill, Weinberg has complemented in-classroom learning with a broad range of hands-on experiences. The summer after her freshman year, Weinberg worked abroad at Tel Aviv University in Israel, where she learned about food security with other students from around the world. She later spent a semester studying in Mexico and working with farmers through Slow Food Mexico to organize educational trips for students. “Experiential education is so important,” Weinberg says of her time abroad. “Classes and exchanges in other countries complemented what I learned at UNC. My experience at Carolina wouldn’t have been nearly as productive or inspiring had it not been for the opportunities I had abroad to implement what I was learning.”
In May 2018, Weinberg returned to Mexico to begin research for her senior thesis, interviewing farmers in the Central Valley of Oaxaca on local agricultural practices, development, and changing consumptive practices. She followed her interview process with a summer spent in Washington, D.C., as a fellow for Meridian International Center’s International Visitor Leadership Program. In her spare time, Weinberg volunteered at the local Columbia Heights Farmers Market, which supports and serves a large Hispanic population. With several vendors originally from Latin American countries and offering traditional cuisine in addition to produce, she says that “it was fascinating to see such a successful model that provided the community with affordable, healthy foods in an environment that was comfortable and familiar for the community.”
Weinberg notes that much of her experience at UNC-Chapel Hill has hinged on the importance of research and the on-the-ground learning opportunities it affords. “I would really encourage any student at UNC, especially those in the social sciences and humanities, to find a research opportunity. It’s not just for STEM-related studies,” Weinberg says. “It forced me to be independent, to think creatively, to improve my writing skills – it’s been one of the most practical experiences I’ve had. Carolina offers many resources for students looking to go abroad and I’ve found organizations abroad are really welcoming to students looking to learn in a hands-on way.”
By Jamie Gnazzo ’13