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Belize Program Turns Field into Classroom

A student report on UVM's new study-abroad program

By Kyle Lovell Article published May 1, 2007

Belize
Sophomore Laura Quinn (left), a participant in the the Belize semester study-abroad program visited Caracol, the largest Mayan archaeological site in Belize, with two international students from Galen University. (Photo: courtesy of Jay Ashman)

Welcome to Belize, a country of sandy beaches, dense jungle and rich cultural heritage. This is a tropical paradise with rampant HIV infection, impoverished people and political corruption creating debt equal to the yearly GDP.

Amidst the beauty of the land and the exciting new culture, 18 UVM students began six different projects, whose effects will far outlast the students’ stay in Belize.

Jay Ashman, lecturer in Community Development and Applied Economics Department (CDAE), and Meg Ashman, former publications editor in Extension, designed and co-directed the semester-long, study-abroad adventure based around sustainable development. Gary Flomenhoft, research associate in CDAE and fellow in the Gund Institute, was the lead faculty member. UVM students studied with UVM faculty and participated in one or more courses offered by Galen University in San Ignacio, alongside Belizean students.

Each student team had a self-designed, fieldwork project, tackling an issue of Belize that aligns with the eight Millennium Development Goals set out by the United Nations. The wide breadth of projects ranged from HIV/AIDS education and nutrition in elementary schools to alternative energy solutions and the fight against political corruption. Laura Quinn, leader of the cultural tourism project, said, “Inspiration from the people around me makes my heart race. I want to improve lives in this community.”

Students working on HIV awareness attempted to educate everyone, from rural backcountry to bustling Belize City. The alternative energy students, led by Gary Flomenhoft, helped to end the Toledo district’s dependency on the electric company monopoly by using a vegetable oil generator.

“Students frequently say the service learning projects we do are the best thing they have done in a foreign country,” Flomenhoft says. “Becoming part of the community, instead of being a tourist, gives them a unique insight into the culture and makes them feel much more accepted. Students always feel great about being able to make a contribution, but they get just as much back in learning how to do a project in the real world.”

The most surprising project to come out of this endeavor was the fight against Belize’s overwhelming political corruption, which truly hinders any chance Belize has at furthering its goals of eradicating poverty and improving quality of life. The Belizean government, which received a 3.7 on a 1 to 10 scale (1 being totally corrupt) in the Corruptions Perception Index, takes in US$280 million every year. There are transactions not accounted for, and millions squandered on bribery and scandal. The students in this group aligned themselves with SPEAR, the Society for the Promotion of Education and Research, to fight for accountability and transparency in the government.

Attaining good governance in Belize will positively affect all aspects of Belize. The roads will be fixed, as all taxpayers were promised; import substitution bribery will end and therefore boost local economy; and the mounting debt will finally begin to decrease, so Belize can be in control of its own wellbeing. Having a dependable government will give people faith in a chance for improved lives, along with more options to explore life’s opportunities.

A healthier person, with a better education, in a stronger economy, leads directly to success. In the world of CDAE, the same question is often posed: How will you change the world? These eighteen UVM students decided to throw themselves into a new perspective and change the world for the better.

Program information: Belize Program.