MANSFIELD - Fourteen Mansfield University students led by two professors traveled to Belize, a small Central American country about the size of Massachusetts with a population of just more than 300,000, earlier this summer.
Jeffrey Bosworth and Jonathan C. Rothermel of the History and Political Science Department had been planning the short-term, study abroad trip for more than a year. The course, PSC 4455: field research in Belize, ran during the first summer session, but the highlight of the course was a two-week, in-country field research component.
Area students who participated were Jason White and Barbara Campbell, of Troy and Colleen Dempsey, of Mansfield.
"Belize represents an excellent opportunity for students to see the problems that face a developing country, particularly with regard to globalization and environmental protection and it has the added benefit of being English-speaking and a multi-ethnic democracy," Bosworth said.
Each student selected a research question prior to arriving in Belize and focused their field research on gathering information about their topic and developing their theses.
Students met with a wide range of people including the Speaker of the House for the National Assembly, an American expatriate citrus farmer, local entrepreneurs, government officials from the Ministry of Tourism, a former Senator and appointed member of the Elections and Boundaries Commission, a managing director of a wildlife sanctuary, Mayan tour guides, Mennonite chicken and dairy farmers, professors from the University of Belize and representatives from the US Embassy, just to name a few.
While in Belize, students visited historical Mayan sites, including Altun Ha and Xunantunich. They also ventured deep into the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, at times submersed into water up to their shoulders, to see Mayan pottery vessels and human remains believed to have been sacrificed, including the mostly intact skeletal remains of a woman (who many now believe to be a man) for whom the cave is named after. While most of the trip was spent in the interior of the country, mainly San Ignacio, students traveled to one of Belize's beautiful tropical cayes for the final leg of the trip.
"Most people we met in Belize assumed we were archaeologists or biologists, and they seemed surprised - if not slightly amused - when we told them we were political scientists," Rothermel said. "Belizeans were very forthright about sharing their political views and their concern for the future of their country was evident in conversations that we had with them."
For most of the students, it was their first time out of the country. Many were struck by the obvious poverty in parts of Belize.
"I appreciate what I have here in the states so much more based on how happy the people of Belize are with so little, "Poliitical Science major Ariel Faber said.
Geology major Anthony Magistro appreciated the simplicity of the Belizean lifestyle, which emphasizes a "go slow" attitude.
"Belize changed my perspective on what amenities I would be comfortable living without," he said. "I was pleasantly surprised at how easily I found it to go about my day without something as seemingly basic as cell phone service."
The friendliness and hospitality of the Belizeans quickly won the students over. Kelsy Woodman, a history and political science major, loved the connections she made with the locals during the trip.
"Being able to study in a developing country, eating local food, and talking to locals was one of the greatest experiences I've had in my life," Woodman said.
"I believe that studying abroad in Belize was a life-changing experience, helping me to discover a part of myself and learn so much more about the world I live in," communication major Jalise Clark said.
To see pictures and information on the group's trip, visit their Facebook page at facebook. com/MUBelize2014.
Bosworth and Rothermel already are making plans to run the course again next summer.
For more information visit mansfield.edu.