Bitten by the ice of the alpine winds, their feet sloshed through the puddled volcanic gravel in the dead of night. The fiery roar of Volcan de Fuego sounded off in the distance. Deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. It had been two days since they began their trek and the journey’s end was within sight. As they reached the summit, the sun at last began to peak from behind the clouded sky, casting its brilliant rays across the breathtaking scenery.

This past summer, Northern Illinois University sophomore and Give Back Scholar Ethan Gonzalez spent some time relaxing and recharging–and reaching mountaintops–in his father’s hometown in Guatemala. He traveled there in June with his father and brother, and stayed with his uncle who led them on a host of adventures throughout the country.

Ethan kept busy during his two week stay with trips to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, hikes to the hidden pools in Lanquin where he swam in their crystal waters, and down-time spent soaking up the sun at the beach. He even put his Music Education and Vocal Performance studies to good use by serenading his grandparents with an Italian Aria. 

A fervent proponent of walking and being in nature, Ethan treasured his scenic experiences during his summer travels, some of which he said were physically taxing but mentally and emotionally rewarding. His most gratifying experience was his journey climbing one of Guatemala’s most famous volcanoes, Volcan Acatenango.

“It was a thrill to climb this 13,000 foot-tall volcano with my dad and brother by my side,” said Ethan. “It was a challenge going through the rain and frigid winds near the summit, but it paid off with a victory lap around the crater once we reached the top!”

A rewarding and centering experience, Ethan’s journey on Volcan Acatenango opened his eyes to the powerful practice of breathwork, and it reminded him to always take a break and appreciate the beauty that surrounds you.

With the new school year in full swing and students across the country trading in their tank tops and towels for backpacks and binders, remembering to take a step back and recenter yourself is more important now than ever. Whether you are an incoming freshman or pursuing a master’s degree, practicing self-care year-round is paramount to success in all aspects of life. 

“College can be very stressful, but having the opportunity to stay in tune with nature and taking a step back has made me realize that I have made it very far as a person,” said Ethan. “Last year as a freshman I had to go through a lot of self-growth and learn a lot more about myself than I already knew. I am focusing on myself and not worrying about what others are thinking about me. I’m the one that’s responsible for doing what I love and setting myself up for success. I’ve learned that there are going to be many volcanoes in our lifetimes. But once you reach the top, you feel weightless.”