Every summer, one of the 14 universities from Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education organizes a trip abroad exclusively for honors students.
This year, Mansfield University volunteered to host the annual State System honors trip, which was approved by the respective honors directors. Twelve of the universities, including Mansfield, selected two honors students to enroll in the program.
The destination was a place where Mansfield University is becoming well known, thanks to Political Science professors Jeff Bosworth and Jonathan Rothermel, the small Central American country of Belize (population: est. 380,000)
For the last three years, Bosworth and Rothermel accompanied Mansfield students for a short-term, study abroad program in Belize. This summer they took the State System honors group, travelling from May 29 to June 12.
rior to the trip, students met at Mansfield for several days of intensive academic preparation for the trip. Students were briefed on aspects of Belizean history, politics, economics, and culture. rior to the trip, students met at Mansfield for several days of intensive academic preparation for the trip. Students were briefed on aspects of Belizean history, politics, economics, and culture.
While archaeologists, anthropologists, and biologists are drawn to Belize for obvious reasons, the Mansfield political scientists stand out. Due to its small size, not too many scholars pay attention to Belizean politics. Belize has a competitive two-party, parliamentary system of government since it became independent from Great Britain in 1981.
However, politics is just one of many facets of Belize covered in the course, Field Research Abroad. In fact, there were a wide array of majors represented on the trip, including nursing, computer science, accounting, graphic design, environmental science, English literature, finance, biology, journalism, social work, political science, sociology, psychology, environmental studies, international studies, education, Spanish, and biochemistry.
“By taking a broad perspective on development, globalization, the political process and social diversity of Belize, we seek to have our students experience an integrated approach to practical problems,” Bosworth said. “We hope that they move beyond narrow disciplines and draw upon their own interests and expertise as they confront real-world issues."
The course promotes field research, which includes interviews and direct observations, in support of four broad research questions related to globalization, economic development, politics, and multiculturalism.
Students met with politicians, business leaders, representatives from the Ministry of Tourism, University of Belize professors, and NGO representatives – just to name a few. In addition to group interviews facilitated by the professors, students were encouraged to engage directly with Belizeans. The fact that English is the primary language spoken in Belize allows for more genuine interactions.
As a developing country, Belize faces significant challenges. “We saw what Americans would consider poverty, but what Belizeans called a way of life,” Brynna Sherony, an International Studies major from California University, said. “Studying in Belize taught me how fortunate I am to be an American.” The trip also reaffirmed her desire to help others and pursue a career in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Globalization has increasingly put pressure on the country to make available its resources for investment, but as students began to find out, there are economic, social, and environmental costs associated with globalization.
For example, tourism is a major component of the Belizean economy. Over one million cruise ship tourists and 385,000 overnight tourists visited Belize in 2016. The average overnight tourist spends just under seven days in Belize, while the average cruise ship tourist only spends five to six hours in the country. Questions are raised about the sustainability of tourism, especially as plans are being made to accommodate more cruise ship tourists.
By participating in common mass tourist activities such as cave tubing and zip lining, students gained a better perspective of the value of tourism to the development of the country.
After visiting a number of Mayan ruins, including Altun Ha, Lamanai, Xunantunich, and the Actun Tunichil Muknal (or ATM) Cave, students were prompted to think critically about the preservation and exploitation of these sites. Meanwhile, the current Maya population (est. 11%) fights for communal rights and is often treated as second-class citizens.
Some students were afforded the opportunity to visit a local school and meet with school administrators. They learned about the costs of education for local families, which includes hundreds of dollars a year in books and uniforms. This is daunting for a country with a GDP per capita income of just $4,900/year.
“Despite the challenges, the classrooms were full of children and teachers who acted very similarly to what you would observe in the United States,” West Chester University Education major Sara Nyholm said. “It felt so familiar and foreign all at once. For me, the experience reaffirmed the importance of education and its value to families and communities.”
The final three nights of the trip were spent on one of Belize’s many islands. From Caye Caulker, students snorkeled along the second largest barrier reef in the world. The Caribbean breeze brought some welcome relief from the heat. They also had time to reflect upon their experience.
“In the US, everyone is in a rush, but in Belize the locals live by the saying ‘go slow,’” Morganne Bennett, an education major from Kutztown University, said. “They take life in moment by moment.” Bennett hopes to apply more “Belizean time” to her own hectic lifestyle.
“Being able to talk to the locals and get their reactions and feelings toward their country opened my eyes to the everyday life of Belizeans,” Grace Smoot, an Environmental Biology major from Millersville University, said, “I see great hope in them.”
Rothermel emphasized the benefits of short-term, study abroad programs. “These students gained a rich, intercultural experience because they took the time to learn about Belize’s history, institutions, and its people,” he said.
Homework assignments and readings every night throughout the trip were geared toward the next day’s adventure. This foundational knowledge equipped them to be better travelers and make positive impressions upon their hosts.
The following students attended the trip: Caitlin Moran and Nate Romanauski (Mansfield), Sara Nyholm and Sierra Annand (West Chester), Jordan Back and Leah Fleming (Shippensburg), Veronica Becerra and Shaneka Briggs (Cheyney), Lorraine Bracker and Brynna Sherony (California), Clare Clark and Ellie Schiappa (Slippery Rock), Ashley Collins and Abigail Schauf (East Stroudsburg), Jason Iyobhebhe and Grace Smoot (Millersville), Laura Josuweit and Josh Lloyd (Bloomsburg), Hannah McDonald and Colleen Michaels (Edinboro), Morganne Bennett and Kristyn Rohrer (Kutztown), Kylie Smith and Adam Wasser (Indiana).
In addition, Mansfield Professors Linda Kennedy (Geosciences) and Lilace Guignard (Outdoor Recreation) provided assistance and shared their expertise with the students during the trip.
To see more photos and get more information on the Belize Study Abroad program, go to their Facebook page at facebook.com/MUBelizeStudyAbroad