As members of a service-learning class at Tusculum College prepared for its recent trip to Belize, the students reflected in journal writings about their expectations.
But what they experienced and learned proved much different. “We were surprised that our expectations for the trip changed dramatically once we got there,” said class member Ryan Lewis.
The Service-Learning Immersion class of nine students, accompanied by instructor Robin Fife, traveled to Belize at the first of April to volunteer at a primary school and in other youth efforts in a community in the northern part of the country. The students made a public presentation about their trip to faculty, staff, fellow students, and community members on April 9.
The trip helped the students gain a better understanding of another culture and the role of their service in that community.
“It wasn’t about us,” Lewis said. “We became partners with the people in Belize. The trip was an opportunity to go to another culture and be put on an equal level working with the people in Belize. It was a chance to gain knowledge from each other. We all took away a lot more from the trip than we expected. It was amazing, just amazing.”
“When you go work with another culture, you can’t deny the differences, but you find there are common things you share,” added class member Jeremiah Peterson.
The Tusculum students volunteered at San Jose Government School, located in the village about 15 miles outside of Orange Walk Town, where the students stayed during the trip. About 400 students attend the school. Many of the schools in Belize are church sponsored, but as a government school, San Jose doesn’t receive any church support and the government support it receives is not a significant amount, the students explained.
The main project for the students was building a fence around a water filtration system, the only source of water for the school. The system, which had been designed and installed by students from another university, had been vandalized and was inoperable, explained Peterson. In addition to building the fence to protect the system, the students were able to repair the filtration system.
The Tusculum students also provided remedial reading tutoring at all grade levels, a need expressed by the San Jose teachers, and worked with character development efforts.
At the San Jose school, character education focuses on such topics as responsibility, self esteem, health awareness, cleanliness, respect for others and respect for authority. The principal, called “Mr. Ku” by the Tusculum students because his name is hard to pronounce, said something to the students that Cheyenne Casteel believes was one of the most thought-provoking aspects of the trip. “He said, ‘you cannot be fully independent in the world’, which is very different than America where we are taught self independence,” Casteel said.
The Tusculum students worked with the Youth Advocacy Movement organization that focuses on character development in high schools. The organization provides 50 hours of training for the young people involved and is a safe event for the teens, said class member Ashley Foust.
The students also learned of the efforts of the Belize Family Life Association. This organization trains about 15 students to go out into schools and share information about healthy life practices with their fellow students.
Another area the Tusculum students addressed at the San Jose School was physical education. “Little attention is given to physical education at the school,” Peterson said. “There is no physical education teacher, so what is done is left up to the classroom teachers who have no special training. The school also lacks basic equipment, so we brought balls to them, and other equipment.”
In preparation for the trip, each of the students selected a topic related to a social issue to research while in Belize. During the report presentation, the students described their chosen topics and what they had discovered through their research. Those topics included the preservation of natural resources, preservation of traditional medicine, economic development, character education, and health education and prevention of disease.
The students also gave overviews of Belize’s people groups, foods, culture, education, and economy. In the area where the Tusculum students served, sugar cane and sugar processing are the prominent industries, while tourism is also important.
Peterson explained that many young people who pass their tests to further their education do not go on to do so because they don’t need the schooling to work in the sugar cane fields, which is low paying, dangerous work, or at the sugar processing plant. In Belize, students are required to go to school until the age of 14. At that age, they take exams, which if they pass, qualify them to continue their education.
Belize has a number of people groups including the indigenous Maya Indians, Mennonites, and the Garafuna, descendants of former slaves and other cultural groups from South American who settled in the country.
“America is called the melting pot, but Belize is a melting pot as well,” said Sarah Philipp, explaining that this diversity is good as different groups have kept their cultural traditions while learning to live together, but increasing pressure to assimilate threatens the loss of the individual groups’ heritage and culture.
This class is the fourth that Fife, assistant professor of social science, has led to Belize. Each trip has had a different destination, she noted, but it is hoped that college classes can return to the Orange Walk Town district and partner with the San Jose Government School.
In organizing the trips to Belize, the college teams with Peacework, an organization that seeks to help alleviate poverty and promote peace in developing countries. Peacework partners with colleges and universities to bring the expertise of their faculty and students to developing countries for projects to help develop self sufficiency in the communities and improve the lives of the residents in those communities.