Community Development and Applied Economics
Belize Program at Mid-Semester: A Student's Perspective
Release Date: 04-06-2009
Author: Alex Hemmer
Photo caption: UVM students Alex Hemmer, Gisele Nelson, and Andrew Lassiter (from left to right) after the first leg of the canoe race, La Ruta Maya in March. Alex, Gisele, and Andrew are currently participating in the Belize Semester Abroad in Sustainable Development.
If I had to explain what makes UVM's Sustainable Community Development Program in Belize so unique, I would have to say it is because it is a "total experience." Not only are we taking classes with some of the top professionals in Central America, we have also connected with the community through service-learning projects, played sports with Belizean students, learned the histories of the many ethnic groups, eaten the delicious local cuisine, explored ancient Mayan ruins, visited remote nature reserves and tropical cayes, and paddled canoes across the country. There truly is something for everyone here, and opportunities for learning and fun are often one in the same.
Our group lives in San Ignacio, the second largest city in Belize. It is an easy walk from our lodging in Martha's Inn to anywhere in town and we have certainly made the most of it. The streets bustle with restaurants, tour operators, vendors and small shops, yet it all has a very open, laid back feel to it. Whether it is the taxi drivers, the waiters, vendors at the market, or just people on their way to work, everyone wants to speak with us about our experience in Belize.
One of the most interesting things about the country is the wide cultural diversity. Belize is not dominated by a single group; rather, it is a melting-pot of many groups. The indigenous Maya population exists side by side with Garifuna, Creoles, Mestizos, Indians, and Chinese, each with their own rich culture and history. The art, music, food and dress all reflect this diversity and make the Belizean culture unique among all the Latin American countries.
During the week, the UVM students travel by bus to Galen University, known for its business and international programs and its involvement in the community. Here we have experienced something entirely different from going to school in Burlington; with only 300 students and one classroom building, everyone gets to know each other very well. It is not unusual to see Belizean students, internationals and professors all mingling together in the lobby. The classes themselves have also opened up a new world to us. Jaime Awe, the foremost archaeologist in Belize, teaches a course on Mayan archeology and culture, and has taken us on several trips to see the impressive temples and monuments built by that civilization thousands of years ago. Students are also learning about the effects of ecotourism in Belize, exploring the tropical ecology of the rainforest, and critiquing traditional development strategies from an indigenous perspective. All of these courses supplement classroom instruction with weekend excursions to museums, rural villages, resorts and nature reserves across Belize.
Meg and Jay Ashman, lecturers in the UVM CDAE department, have also contributed to making this semester a great experience. In their third semester of leading UVM trips to Belize, they have been invaluable as resources to the students. They have helped us adjust to the new culture here and have given tips for how to maximize our time in Belize. Besides guiding us and leading our reflection activities, they also teach several courses at Galen. Meg teaches a strategic writing class and Jay a course on business law; both include Belizean and international students.
The centerpiece of the program is Applications of Sustainable Development, a 4-credit service learning course taught by Professor Jay Ashman that all the UVM students participate in along with an equal number of Belizeans and other international students. Students work in teams with local schools, NGOs and community organizations on projects that provide a service to the community while giving the students hands-on experience in community development work. This semester's projects include: environmental education for middle school children, developing a website and operation manuals for an organization fighting domestic violence, improving a rural solid waste management program, using gardening to teach children the importance of good nutrition, creating a uniform system of signage for Belize's largest protected area, teaching computer applications to primary school teachers, working with the Humane Society to address the health problems created by stray dogs in San Ignacio, and introducing to Belize "Football for Life," a spinoff of the very successful Grassroot Soccer program, which uses games related to soccer to teach young people about HIV and AIDS. These projects have helped us gain a deeper understanding of the local way of life and will hopefully have a real impact on the community. We have all enjoyed putting what we have learned in the classroom into action.
In fact, we have found that most of what we learn about Belize occurs outside of the classroom. Every day is a new opportunity to develop relationships with our neighbors and classmates and to take in the many beautiful sights of the country. We have been invited to our Belizean friends' homes for dinners and campouts, traveled to different nature reserves and archeological sites with friends who work as tour guides, and played on the soccer and softball teams with Galen students.
Because of these connections, we have been able to visit some amazing places in Belize. We have been to a jaguar reserve in the jungle, the beautiful Rio On Pools, and a 12-acre caye located right next to the barrier reef with some of the best snorkeling in the world. By far the most intense experience we have had was participating in La Ruta Maya River Challenge, an annual 175 mile, 4 day canoe race across the country of Belize. Arguably the nation's biggest event of the year, the race hosts teams from all over the world in addition to the many Belizean teams. Seven UVM students competed in the race and those that did not compete were on the support crew, preparing equipment and enjoying the festivities with the thousands of other people camping along the river each night. We found that most of the areas we were paddling through were completely undeveloped and dominated by dense jungle or mangrove swamps. When we did pass towns or villages, Belizeans lined the riverbanks to cheer the boats on. All of the UVM paddlers made it through the rapids and exposed rocks, took in scenery and wildlife that could not be seen any other way, and beat some teams in the process.
From the moment we stepped off of the plane, Belize has been one amazing experience after another. We have met people of all different backgrounds, studied the environment and history of the country, and seen the many natural wonders Belize has to offer. Throughout the semester we have become familiar with the local culture just as we have come to understand our own from another perspective. The UVM program in Belize brings adventure learning to a new height and has already provided us with a lifetime of memories.