by Ashleigh Wallace
Ashleigh’s blog post is the fifth of Iowa State’s contributions to National Honors Blog Week 2014. This year’s theme is “Things You Can’t Learn in a Classroom,” …and Ashleigh was a part of a spring break service trip collaboration between Iowa State’s Honors Program and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Ashleigh enrolled in a service learning Honors seminar and then spent 10 days in Punta Gorda, Belize this March. Read on for her emphatic endorsement for service learning.
Over spring break this year, I traveled to Belize on a service-learning trip with Iowa State University. Where is Belize, you ask? I wondered the same thing. It seemed none of us in our seminar portion of the class knew where it was. Well here’s a little geography lesson: it’s “over there”… Actually it’s just south of Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula. Super small country, you’d miss it if you blinked for too long. Despite its small size, Belize is actually a super awesome country. It’s home to about 300,000 people from more walks of life than the melting pot of America. There are the native Mayans, then the Garifuna, Creole, Amish, Chinese, some Americans; the list goes on. Our purpose to travel to Belize was for a service-learning trip. And that’s exactly what it was: lots of service, and lots of learning. I thoroughly enjoyed both aspects of our trip and it was a rewarding experience inside and out.
I think the most important things I learned there are impossible to truly grasp in a classroom. You can’t open a book and really understand how something works, inside and out without some extra studying. Most of us visualize what we’re reading. Many of us have to build a model. Some have to talk it out with someone. We integrate an extra “push,” if you will, to understand what we’re reading in a textbook. And so, you can’t open up a book and truly understand a culture. So our “push” in Belize was to interact with the people who live there, on their terms. Sure, in a classroom, you can bring someone in who is from a specific area or field and they can talk to you about how they live or what they do, but they’re speaking in an American classroom setting, they’re catering everything to how we traditionally learn here in the United States. But if you go to a country to learn firsthand, what you learn is so much more worthwhile and impacting than just reading it out of a book.
In Belize, we saw the people for who they really are and not someone’s interpretation through a book or an article. Even now, reading this blog, you won’t really understand the people unless you go yourself. But we talked with them, worked with them, and learned from them. One thing I noticed that was so different from the United States is many people in Belize don’t have lawnmowers; they cut their grass with machetes. We have so many more luxuries in the United States that they don’t have, and you know what? They don’t care. They love living where they live. The idea that everyone wants to live in the United States and we’re the best country isn’t as prevalent as many believe. Belizeans are proud to be Belizeans. They love when people come to visit so they can show off their country and their rich mix of cultures. It was so fun to walk down the street and everyone says hello to you. Literally. Everyone. It was fantastic because you had the chance to meet new people. That dialogue was more accessible because it was standard to greet everyone and I was able to start a conversation with some of the locals that changed my perspective on a lot of things.
We didn’t just learn about some of the social and cultural aspects of life in Belize, but also some economics. They plant everything by hand down there, and while many of us will go in our gardens and plant or pull weeds for a day, it’s a small space and a lot of times we have power tools like tillers and diggers and hoses and running water that help us in our work. There, we hand planted 200 coconut trees, we dug a giant duck pond with just shovels, and we hoed the land for hours to get the soil mixed up. And it was fun. It was just another day to the people we were helping, but to many of the students on the trip, hand planting and digging a huge pond and hoeing is very foreign because it’s not something a lot of Americans do. Probably the most foreign experience for us was building a stove and oven for a school kitchen. I now know how to use clay and concrete to build a structure, something I don’t think I can learn just sitting in a desk at school. It’s hands-on experience that sticks with you the most. Everything I learned in Belize I honestly don’t think I could’ve learned by memorizing text out of a book. I learned about a group of people I’ve never been in contact with before and that was the best part. I’ll never forget the experience and I’ll definitely use it in the future when I plan to travel to other countries with the same desire in mind: to learn in a way that I will remember for the rest of my life.