As I boarded the plane to Belize, I felt a little nervous and didn’t know what to expect. As the UVM teaching assistant for the Belize: Women’s Health & Spirituality course, it was my role to help support and assist UVM students during our 14-day trip. Some students were less experienced with traveling than others, so I wasn’t sure how well they would adapt. I also worried about group dynamics and the challenges of traveling with students in a new environment and different culture.
It turns out that my fears were completely unfounded. The students were incredibly engaged, curious, and thoughtful, which reaffirmed my long-held belief that study abroad is critical to personal and professional development. Here’s why:
Engagement: We go to college to learn about diverse perspectives, and to develop ourselves and our ideas. Still, we often find ourselves gravitating toward things that make us feel comfortable. The study abroad course blended exploration and social support seamlessly. While traveling with this group of students, I learned so much about their different interests, experiences, and areas of focus. With a mix of social sciences and pre-med majors, the students asked questions from diverse academic angles and from their own personal experiences. They learned together and from one another, bringing our understanding of comparative issues in health care to a new level.
Opportunity: Traveling as a group gave us the freedom to try new things and find comfort in each other’s company. When placed in a new environment, it’s hard to know how you’ll adapt. Together, the group had many giggling fits, interesting discussions, and even some emotional moments. As a group, we climbed Mayan ruins, explored the Mayan “underworld” on a cave tubing excursion, and visited an iguana conservation center. As individuals, we tried new foods, engaged with complex and challenging ideas, and felt safe to explore our identities and experiences together.
Access: Planning study abroad into your academic schedule can be challenging when you have strict requirements for your major. Many of the students in the group were able to fulfill credits in their major, including those students with science majors. For those students who had never imagined they would be able to study abroad, the UVM Travel Study program allowed them to earn credits toward their degree and maximize their time during the break. Also, the application is simple and convenient because you don’t have to transfer credits, financial aid, or scholarships – making it a more accessible option to many students.
Getting Ahead: This two-week travel course offered students the opportunity to delve into a new cultural experience and earn UVM credit outside of the classroom before the semester even started. Starting spring semester with a few credits already completed, the students were able to maximize the number of courses they took and/or focus on a few core courses during the traditional semester to boost their GPA – thus, maximizing their credits while minimizing their stress and work load. Genius!
Preparation for a Professional Career: With the opportunity to engage with people from widely different backgrounds, both within our group and with the people we met in Belize, the students are better informed about cultural diversity. In particular, students who are interested in social work, public health, and medicine benefited from the opportunity to experience life in another part of the world and understand how lived experiences might impact a person’s beliefs in health care and medicinal practices. No matter what your major, learning about identities is important for developing yourself as a professional and for working effectively with others.
Increased Resiliency: Over the course of our two-week trip, students engaged with challenging and exciting new ideas. Trying new things and experiencing life through a different cultural lens can be an emotional process. Together, we worked on ways to deal with environmental and emotional triggers and built our capacity to address challenging situations. Whether enjoying a conversation over coffee or practicing yoga and meditation, we learned and practiced ways to advocate for our own needs. Developing skills in communication, self-care, and personal resiliency, the students grew both as individuals and as a group. The result was clear both in how the students supported each other and in their ability to take care of themselves.
Looking back, I am so impressed with the emotional maturity and strength of the group. My concerns about the students’ initial anxiety was quickly allayed by their warmth and genuine interest in learning about the people and practices in Belize. Through this process, I learned a great deal not only about the cultures and medicinal practices we explored in the country, but also from the experiences that the students brought to the group from their own lives.
In two short weeks, I watched as the students channeled their inner strength and saw how experiencing life in a new place truly supports personal development and emotional growth