Winter break lets students explore, reach new heights

Freshman Emily Mirochnick visited Costa Rica during winter break, where she collected gifts that were donated to the community center. Photo courtesy of Emily Mirochnick.
Freshman Emily Mirochnick visited Costa Rica during winter break, where she collected gifts that were donated to the community center. // Photo courtesy Emily Mirochnick

Winter break is the long-awaited, unadulterated span of three weeks at the end of fall semester reserved exclusively for Netflix binges. While many students flew home to chillier temperatures to spend time with family and friends (and seasons), other University of Miami students chose to jump into new experiences over the holidays.

Rachel Eddy, a junior studying musical theater, joined 39 other American students on a 10-day adventure through Israel on UMiami Hillel’s Birthright trip. The trip teaches students about Israel by taking excursions to historic sites and making time for one-on-one interaction with the Israeli people.

“I really wanted to see Israel because I’d learned so much about it growing up, and this was certainly the most cost-effective way to do so,” Eddy said. “The itinerary seemed really fun, and I wanted to learn more about my heritage as well.”

Over 10 days, the students visited marketplaces and went to historical sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The group hiked up to points from which they were able to see Syria, the Gaza Strip, Jordan and Lebanon. They also put their wishes in the Western Wall and visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.

“I think my favorite activity was our Jeep tour of the Golan Heights,” Eddy said. “I thought it was incredibly surreal because you could see Syria from the peak of where we stopped – this place that is always on the news and so very dangerous to visit, a place that Israelis, who actually live on the border, are banned from visiting.”

Although a bit different from the Golan Heights, sophomore Jason Gutierrez reached stratospheric heights on his winter break when he went skydiving for the first time.

“The thing holding me back was obviously the chance of something going wrong and something happening to me,” Gutierrez said. “My feelings leading up to the day were a combination of fear and nervousness of the unknown, as well as excitement.”

Gutierrez, an economics and psychology major, was able to channel his Superman powers thanks to a Living Social deal for Miami Skydiving Center near the Kendall-Tamiami Airport in Miami. Prior to jumping out of the airplane in a tandem parachute suit, instructors explained to skydivers how to position their bodies while in the air.

“When I jumped out of the plane, it was incredible,” Gutierrez said. “I could see everything from where I was. …We were so high that even after deploying our parachute, we were still well above the clouds.”

For freshman Emily Mirochnick, returning to the town in Costa Rica where she served the community in the summer of 2014 was the most meaningful part of winter break. The theater major took her family back to La Carpio, a destitute neighborhood of San Jose.

“It was so exciting to be able to show my family the place and people that impacted me so much,” Mirochnick said. “They are some of the most hard working, kind and truly happy people I have ever met, despite their circumstances.”

Since going on a mission trip to La Carpio last summer, Mirochnick tried to find ways to continue to help the community. Mirochnick stayed in contact with the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation after her first visit to get more information on the community’s needs and progress.

“When I found out that my family had decided to travel to Costa Rica for winter break, I sent an email to all the families in my neighborhood asking for any old, gently used clothing, shoes, toys, art supplies – anything that they were willing to give away,” she said.

She ended up collecting enough donations to fill two large suitcases. Each family member from the La Carpio community was able to pick one item as their “Christmas gift” and the toys and art supplies were donated to the community center, where many of the kids spend their days.

“The people were all so incredibly grateful,” Mirochnick said. “Everyone was excited, but watching the smallest children’s faces light up as they picked out a pair or batman pajamas or a dress with a tutu was incredibly rewarding.”