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Students study abroad in Belize as part of new hybrid service learning course [VIDEO]

During winter break in January, 12 Ohio University students from diverse backgrounds and majors traveled to the Central American country of Belize for almost 10 days to complete part of their requirements for the three-credit-hour service learning course, “Belize: Literature, Culture, and Service Learning.”

The hybrid course requires the students to do part of their school work while in Belize and the other part in Athens after they return. In addition, the class offered the opportunity to travel to Columbus, Ohio, to meet the acclaimed Belizean author of several of the class texts, Zee Edgell, and they will have an online conversation with Mrs. Edgell on March 22.  

Dr. Marlene De La Cruz-Guzmán, who is the director of the Office for Multicultural Student Access and Retention (OMSAR), said the course is designed to move the program beyond OMSAR and really create strong ties with the Ohio University colleges.

Dr. De La Cruz-Guzmán won an Ohio University Award for Excellence in Global Engagement in November because of her work with the innovative study abroad programs in Belize, Jamaica and Mexico. 

The travel group was composed of five seniors, two juniors, three sophomores and two freshmen from majors that range from biological sciences and psychology to acting, Spanish and sports management.

“Since all of the students needed a junior composition course to graduate, this course allows them to do it in a meaningful way,” Dr. De La Cruz-Guzmán said. “The idea was to incorporate requirements from the University with a study abroad that would create an opportunity for service. Some of the students came for the service and others came because they knew it was an OMSAR program and would be safe.”

One of the first things the students did in Belize was get an orientation to the country.

“It was immediately about getting them there and having a sense of the place, but having read the novels beforehand is what grounded them,” Dr. De La Cruz-Guzmán said. “They witnessed many things they couldn’t imagine in their heads. This English course engaged them in transformational learning that enhanced the study of the literature and the critical writing requirements of the course.”

The travel group dug trenches for irrigation systems and set up planting beds for vegetables on a sustainable farm for orphans to fulfill their service learning obligations.

“It was a good hard amount of physical labor and it’s really hot over there,” Dr. De La Cruz-Guzmán said.

The students also found time to experience many fun activities. They experienced beaches, cave tubing, drumming lessons and museums just to name a few. 

A native of the neighboring country of Guatemala, Dr. De La Cruz-Guzmán said she was already familiar with Belize after previously spending more than a month there doing research for an academic article she had published about Edgell.

The on-site experience allowed the students to learn about various cultural groups in Belize and to relate directly to the cultural background of each piece of literature they have read as well as the different genres that they analyzed.

Since returning to campus, Dr. De La Cruz-Guzmán has met with the students for class on Thursday afternoons to discuss their Belize experiences and how these compare with Edgell’s literature.

“What’s neat about this is that we have this amazing experience that allows us to understand the world that Zee Edgell writes about,” Dr. De La Cruz-Guzmán said. “She’s the foremost Belizean writer, so we read two of her four novels before we left. When we got to Belize City, the students immediately recognized some of the sites Zee described in her book.”

Freshman English major LaTessa Doyle said she wanted to go on this trip because she had never been out of the United States, so it seemed like a good way to start travelling.

“I learned that although we may see post-colonial countries as poor and rundown, nation's like Belize are thriving more and more every day,” Doyle said. “I would recommend this trip to a friend because it was the most eye-opening experience in my life. I now look at things here in Athens differently because of what I experienced in Belize.”

The students are currently in the midst of eight weeks of class since they returned to Athens and they are working on the individual research papers that they will present at the Student Research Expo in April. A few of their planned topics include: Food, multiculturalism and plurality; the Mayan underworld and caves; languages in Belize; the correlation of a Belizean diet and prevalence of disease; and the Belizean ban on offshore drilling.

Dr. Purba Das, an associate professor of communication studies at Ohio University Southern, accompanied the group during the trip.

Dr. De La Cruz-Guzmán said Dr. Das helped her start the OMSAR Peer Mentoring Program at the Southern Campus, so she thought it would be good for her to accompany the group as a co-director.

“We would like to have Ohio University regional campus students on the trip in the future,” Dr. De La Cruz-Guzmán said.

For more information about the Belize service learning study abroad trip, visit https://www.ohio.edu/global/goglobal/programs/BelizeServiceLearning.cfm.