Before this summer, Hannah McDonald had never traveled outside of the United States.
The Journalism and Public Relations major was looking for an opportunity to see the world and to develop her interviewing skills. Thanks to an annual trip for honors students hosted by Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), McDonald realized that opportunity with an educational experience in Central America.
McDonald and Colleen Michaels, who studies Social Work at EU, joined honors students from 12 other PASSHE schools on a 15-day adventure to discover the history, lifestyle and culture of Belize.
“It opened the door to the world for me,” McDonald said about her summer travel. “I learned so much about the people we met, my fellow students and myself. You don't start learning until you start moving, and this trip gave my life the motion I needed.”
Faculty members from Mansfield University accompanied students from a range of academic programs, including students interested in nursing, computer science, accounting, journalism and other programs. The coursework during the trip involved interviews and direct observations of Belize citizens and research questions related to globalization, economic development, politics and multiculturalism.
“Belize is rich with culture,” Michaels said. “There is a great history and a preservation of it that is prominent in the country.”
With a population roughly the size of Cleveland (approximately 380,000), Belize is situated in northern Central America, adjacent to the Caribbean Sea. From May 29 through June 12, McDonald and Michaels conducted research in the country and also canoed down the Sibun River, explored Mayan sites at the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave and danced at a Garifuna drum circle.
“The lifestyle in Belize was different than anything I had ever seen,” McDonald said. “No matter if it was on a tour or in a classroom or a server at a restaurant, the culture was so full of a love for life. And the people would show that through how they spoke to one another and guests.”
Prior to the trip, 24 students from PASSHE honors programs met at Mansfield for intense preparation – establishing an academic foundation, discussing Belize’s history and culture and learning about the country’s current political and economic climate.
In Belize, PASSHE students visited with students and administrators at a local school to learn about the country’s education system. Students also met with politicians, business owners, representatives from the Ministry of Tourism, volunteers from non-governmental organizations (NGO) and professors from the University of Belize. Students conducted group interviews and engaged directly with Belizeans, whose primary language is English.
“We were 24 very different students from very different backgrounds, but we all found a common ground in our love for travel,” said Michaels, who didn’t mind joining her travel group at 4 a.m. to watch the Belizean sunrise. “It made me realize just how unifying travel can be and how wonderful it is to make friends with people who are different from you.”
McDonald explained that not only did she learn about culture, she also learned about herself and others as global citizens.
“From the other students, I learned that people who are so different can get along incredibly well,” she said. “All of us came from different backgrounds and had different majors, but the group melded so well. They also taught me to loosen up a little bit. It can be a challenge for me to get out of my comfort zone, but the friends I made pulled me out of it full force.”
PASSHE honors students who attended the Belize educational experience:
Photo caption: Edinboro University students Hannah McDonald, a junior Journalism and Public Relations major, and Colleen Michaels, a senior Social Work major, hiked up Xunantunich, a Mayan archeological site in Belize. The pair attended the PASSHE Honors Program educational experience in Belize from May 29 through June 12.