For most of us, winter break involved lazy mornings in front of the television and crazy nights with old friends. For nine USF seniors and graduate students, winter break carried them all the way to Belize, and into the lives of dozens of native schoolchildren. They are a part of Project Learn Belize, a special USF immersion program sponsored by the Department of Education.
Belize, which neighbors Guatemala and Mexico, is an English-speaking commonwealth of Great Britain. Currently, Belize lacks a stable public education system, and therefore much of the population relies on private institutions such as Sacred Heart, to educate their children. Volunteer programs are especially crucial for the development of the Belizean youth. Here, Project Learn Belize steps in.
The project made its first trip in January 2008 alongside University Ministry’s Arrupe Immersion Program. January 2009 marks the project’s first solo excursion. Project Learn Belize differs from similar immersion programs because of its predominant focus in education. To participate, students had to be dual degree seniors or School of Education graduate students.
“Students in a specific field are using their expertise,” explains Elisa Jennings, a Comparative Literature and Cultures major. “The program was perfect for me because of my interests in teaching, cultural immersion and social justice.”
For sociology and education major Melissa Knave, “What made Project Learn Belize so unique is that you had nine individuals studying to become teachers with the expertise and background to approach teaching in a successful as well as dynamic manner.”
Project Learn Belize worked hard at Sacred Heart. Once there, “[We] were literally planning and leading lessons and at times managing a classroom.” USF students took on the role of teacher assistants, helping in any way they could.
“The first week I led a lesson on shapes while other students taught lessons on fractions and perimeters,” said Kanve. “I even worked with another dual degree student … and led a physical education class in which we played fitness games such as red light, green light and ‘cookie monster, cookie monster, are you hungry.’”
The project helped Sacred Heart itself by introducing overhead projectors to the Belizean teachers, providing them with further tools to enrich their classrooms. With the help of ITS, the project also installed over 30 computers.
Much of the learning was mutual. Fr. Geoffrey Dillon S.J, a chief developer of the program, “worked hard to make Project Learn Belize a trip that truly allows USF students to experience a different lifestyle, and different culture. By the end of the two weeks we all felt as though we were part of the Dangriga community,” said Katie Newman, another participant.
For Jennings, “The most valuable thing that I learned is the level of importance that a moral focus has over an academic one. Both are equally important to teach, but through my experience in Belize I’ve learned that the former is a prerequisite to the latter. I’ve learned the value of teaching what the situation demands, and that this is not always what the syllabus says.”
The success of Project Belize is only the beginning. According to Fr. Dillon, “In March, faculty and possibly students in the School of Nursing will travel to Belize to assess the health and medical needs of the wider community, and ways in which future School of Nursing programs might assist both children and adults of Dangriga.”
None of the participating students will forget their experience. “On my last day, two students … brought me two small wrapped packages. Inside they had given me a few of their own school supplies and toys,” Newman said. “Many students at Sacred Heart come from backgrounds of poverty, including these two students. I was incredibly moved that two young girls would give up their own possessions to thank me.”
One might find the future in a classroom, but memories like those made on the Project Learn Belize trip are found only in the present world.