Belize Field Study Gives Students Hands-on Conservation Experience
By Tara Laskowski
Jennifer Souther wanted to learn about a different part of the world from something other than a textbook.
So she applied for a passport and this summer found herself in a van with nine other Mason students, traveling the dusty roads of Belize for an experience that changed her life.
“I learned more in one week than I ever thought imaginable,” says Souther, a senior majoring in integrative studies with a concentration in elementary education.
This was the first time the course, NCLC 498/BIOL 440 Rainforest Conservation in Belize, was offered through the Center for Field Studies. New Century College professor Sylvia Vitazkova led the field course. Students toured the country of Belize in late May to learn about conservation, rainforests, and animal biodiversity.
For Souther, the trip brought alive all her senses. “Everything looks, sounds, smells, and feels different from it does in Virginia,” she says. From hearing the Howler monkeys call at night—“like something out of a horror movie”—to adapting to the extreme heat, Souther says she will never forget her experience. “If you think the sky looks amazing at night when you’re in the country in the U.S., then the night sky in Belize would blow you away.”
The week was packed with a flurry of activities—touring a local zoo, hiking in the rainforest, visiting a sustainable butterfly farm, shopping at a Maya women’s co-op, sampling cacao, exploring an active ancient Mayan archeological dig, and getting Garifuna drumming lessons. The students stayed at Hickatee Cottages, a small resort that practices responsible tourism and sustainable practices.
“I was in heaven, basically,” says Mason global affairs major Ghadah Alhuwaider. “It was an amazing experience to me—the nature in the rainforest, the sound of the Howler monkeys, the birds, and the insects.”
Vitazkova, an animal conservationist, has a long history with Belize. She has studied Howler monkeys there for many years, focusing on how disease is spread and how their habitats are changing because of human expansion and destruction of the rainforest. She wanted the students to experience and understand the complexity of issues facing the country and its residents and how their actions affect the animals that live there.
Students prepared for the trip by reading A Neotropical Companion by John Kricher. At the end of the course, they prepared final projects, which ranged from photo montages to virtual scrapbooks, citing conservation lessons and strategies they learned from the trip.
“I had never traveled to Central America before and was very excited for the chance to see the monkeys’ habitat and to learn about the rainforest,” says environmental science and policy graduate student Lilly Parker. “In addition, I am very interested in conservation in developing nations, and this was a great opportunity for me to learn while actually experiencing the area.”
The 10 students bonded from their experience—learning and laughing together through extreme temperatures, new food textures and tastes, and sheer exhaustion—and they all try to stay in touch now that they are back home.
“We were close like one family,” says Alhuwaider. “I will never forget this experience, ever.”
Despite the beauty of the country and the exotic animals and plants, the students also saw a darker side. Because Belize suffers from poverty and pollution, the country struggles with many issues. Students saw evidence of illegal logging and hunting, cattle ranching, and slash-and-burn farming. Each of their destinations reminded them how much their actions affect the environment.
“I am more aware of where products like coffee, chocolate, and tropical fruits come from because of the trip, and I try whenever possible to make sure that the farmers involved get fair trade prices for their products, even if they cost more,” says Parker.
Michelle Pineiro, who graduated in May with a BA in integrative studies, says she’s been more conscious of recycling since she’s returned.
“I realized how everything we do impacts the environment. I’m trying to minimize that for myself.”
“I hope the students not only got a good overview of threats to and potential solutions for tropical ecosystems, but also an appreciation for the complex nature of the issues involved and a sense of personal responsibility as a citizen of the world,” says Vitazkova, who hopes to make this course an annual offering. “I set the bar very high for these students, and they really worked hard and achieved it.”
This article originally appeared on the university’s News site.
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