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Latin American Studies student charts her own path toward graduation

| Sandy Taylor

A few facts about Mackenzie Grahek: She started at UW-Eau Claire in the fall of 2012, her major is Latin American studies and she positively bubbles with enthusiasm. As we sat talking in The Cabin, the chattering of the crowd and the sound of the espresso machine faded into white noise as Mackenzie shared the story of why she went to Chile twice in the last few years.

It began with study abroad her sophomore year. Mackenzie was a Spanish major at the time, and the exchange program at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso in Chile turned out to be a natural fit. However, she had not anticipated the re-entry shock that hit her when she arrived back in Eau Claire.

“If you haven't actually traveled abroad, it's a very hard thing to put into words. You leave the country and you're alone, and then you realize that you can completely move across the world and survive. You grow so much in that short time and then one semester later you come back to Wisconsin and your friends are all the same … still worried about the same things.”

Mackenzie felt so unsettled that she decided to take a break. “When I came back it was too hard, I didn’t deal with it well. I took a semester off, worked a lot and got my mental self back together.”

Upon her return to school, Mackenzie switched her major to Latin American Studies. Although she was physically in Eau Claire, her heart was still in Chile. By the end of the June 2015 semester, she was looking for a way to go back. Luck really does favor the bold, and Mackenzie quickly found a ticket from Virginia to Peru for $221. “So I left, again,” she laughed.

After arriving in Peru, Mackenzie bussed down to Chile, stayed in the city of Arica just long enough to develop a fascination with the Chinchorro mummies (more about this later), then moved on to San Pedro de Atacama. Located in the driest desert in the world, San Pedro de Atacama is cold at night, hot during the day and surrounded by volcanoes. Mackenzie describes it as a “bizarre” and “very, very intense place,” and says the experience changed her life. Each morning she biked to work through the desert wearing a winter coat and snow pants, and every day she changed into a tank top as the temperature soared. Even though she was very far from home, both physically and psychologically, Mackenzie continued working toward her degree by taking online classes through UW-Eau Claire while living in San Pedro de Atacama.

Six months later Mackenzie was traveling again, this time to Valparaiso. She ended up living near the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, the school where she had done her original study abroad semester. After waitressing and selling her jewelry for a time, she walked into PUCV one day and asked if she could sign up for classes. The woman working reception remembered Mackenzie and, after recovering from her surprise, helped her fill out the paperwork. Four days later, she was enrolled in the university. Using UW-Eau Claire’s transfer wizard, Mackenzie worked out which classes would count toward her degree. Of course, as Mackenzie pointed out, because she did this independently it was not technically a study abroad program, but she was studying, abroad.

This last adventure was enough to satisfy Mackenzie’s need for travel, at least for the time being. "Last semester, after I finished in November, I came home. For the first time in my entire life I was ready to be here.” She missed familiar food (Chipotle, in particular), but also deeper things like the “girl power” of the Midwest — a supportive female culture that she never found in Chile.

Now, about the mummies … Mackenzie told me she was exploring Arica when she stumbled across a tiny, dusty museum filled with mummies. For her, it was like finding a gold mine. “I love mummies,” she said happily. “I’ve been obsessed with them since I was little.” Mackenzie explained that the Chinchorro mummies of Chile are the oldest in the world, older even than the mummies of Egypt. “In Arica is the Morro, the beginning of the coastal mountain range, and every time it crumbles, there are more mummies inside the mountain. Mummies are uncovered all the time. But no one knows about them,” she said with dismay. “Even the people in Arica don’t know they’re there.”

If Mackenzie has her way, that will change. The Chilean government offers grants for cultural tourism and other types of projects, and these funds are available to both local and foreign applicants. When Mackenzie learned about this opportunity, it sparked an idea for a project she would like to pursue after she graduates. “I want to take what I’ve learned in LAS and start a cultural tourism project. It’s a huge opportunity for tourism, to show the world these mummies. I’d really like to bring to light the whole culture of the mummies.”

When asked what she has learned that she would like to share, Mackenzie is quick to advocate for study abroad and national student exchange. “It’s so important. The message I want to get across is, get out of your comfort zone. Figure out who you are, actually. Eau Claire is a cool place to live, after you’ve seen the world.” Her other piece of advice? “You need to find something that inspires you and go for it. Traveling is the only thing that makes me feel inspired and excited, but if knitting is your thing, do it.”

Mackenzie will graduate in May 2017, and when she does, she plans to continue traveling. She is happy to name Dr. Fernandez as the best professor she has ever had, and credits him for his proactive support as her adviser.