Centre students immerse themselves in Mexican culture during spring Centre-in-Mérida study abroad program

During the Spring 2020 term, Centre College students, along with Assistant Professor of Biology Mark Galatowitsch, traveled to Mérida, Mexico, as part of the Centre-in-Mérida study abroad program.

Students travel to the remote Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve as part of the Centre-in-Mérida study abroad program.

“During the semester, students all take Spanish classes, a class taught by that year’s Centre faculty director—Water Equity in the Yucatan—and selected from a variety of other classes taught by local faculty—Ancient Maya History, Human Ecology or Economics of Mexico—and the Centre director—Tropical Ecology,” Galatowitsch said. “All the students live with host families and many of them make strong connections with their Mamás.”

Along with the typical classes, the program also includes organized field trips to museums, markets, cooking and dance classes, beaches and cultural events in and around Mérida. The students also go on overnight trips that the Centre director leads to connect with the course material. Students also have the opportunity to travel on their own to explore more of the Yucatan Peninsula.

This year, the group took a trip to the remote Kaxil Kiuic Biocultural Reserve—a Millsaps field station—in the center of the Yucatan Peninsula to experience a dry tropical forest, explore ancient Mayan cities, a hacienda and cenote. There was a five-day trip to Chiapas and Campeche in southern Mexico, where they hiked and whitewater rafted through wet tropical forests in the Lacandon forest, admired outstanding ancient Maya architecture and murals at Palenque, Yaxchilan and Bonampak, and discussed international challenges around immigration and water.

This was Galatowitsch’s first time directing a Centre semester abroad program and ever living in Mexico. This was also the first year, since 2009, that the Mérida program had been directed by a natural sciences faculty member.

Students whitewater raft through wet tropical forests in the Lacandon forest in southern Mexico.

Galatowitsch taught two courses in Mérida: Water Equity in the Yucatan Peninsula and Tropical Ecology.

“Our Water Equity in the Yucatan course was an interdisciplinary exploration of how the unique karst geology of the Yucatan Peninsula has shaped the region’s ecosystems, human history, modern challenges for equitable and sustainable access to clean water and current threats to water access from climate change,” he said. “The Tropical Ecology course focused on the fundamental ecology concepts to understand why tropical ecosystems are the more biodiverse regions of the world. Mérida is situated in the Dry Tropical forests and, by discussing scientific research from the region, we could apply the concepts we learned in class. Though, what the students enjoyed the most was the opportunity to have overnight trips to a wide variety of tropical ecosystems in the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas. It was an amazing opportunity to make those connections to what they learned about in class to experiencing them first hand.”

Amelia Fogle ‘22, a biochemistry and molecular biology major from Danville, Kentucky, had a strong desire to improve her Spanish speaking skills, as well as become a more informed global citizen by living in Mérida.

“While I was in Mérida, I lived with a host family, which was a very rewarding and valuable experience,” Fogle said. “For example, daily meals with my host mama provided unique opportunities for me to improve my Spanish and learn about the culture of the Yucatan. My experiences both inside and outside of the classroom were impactful, as well. For example, we had class Monday through Thursdays, however, Fridays were reserved for cultural experiences, such as visiting the U.S. Embassy, Mayan ruins, museums, markets and various landmarks around the city. In addition to longer excursions, such as Kaxil Kuic and Chiapas, cultural Fridays were beneficial, because they provided me with real-world connections for what we were learning in the classroom.

“Lastly, I witnessed a great deal of personal growth in myself during my time in Mérida,” she continued. “Prior to Mérida, I was very timid when it came to speaking in Spanish. However, my experiences in Mérida provided the perfect environment for my confidence in my Spanish skills to grow. My Spanish professors were patient and encouraging, and I gained a lot of knowledge from simply being immersed in the culture.”

Students participate in a cooking class in Mérida to immerse them in Mexican culture.

Psychology major and Spanish minor Sarah Glenn Insko ’22 (Georgetown, Kentucky) decided to study abroad in Mérida, because she wanted to have an immersive experience in the Spanish language and culture. She knew the best way to learn Spanish would be learning it in a setting where she was surrounded by native speakers.

“Living and studying in Mérida allowed me to better understand and experience language and culture,” she said. “Furthermore, I was able to gain independence by navigating a city in Spanish. Our group also focused on water equity in one of our classes, allowing me to obtain a better understanding of water and it’s societal and cultural importance in the Yucatan. One of my favorite parts about studying abroad was getting to travel throughout the Yucatán and in Chiapas. This allowed for me to have a broader perspective on the environment that I was studying, as well as the culture and language.”

For Galatowitsch, living and teaching in Mérida and traveling with the students was a phenomenal experience.

“I have taught CentreTerm abroad courses in the past, but it has always been a challenge for those students to make strong cultural connections and academically dive deep into another country,” he said. “By spending a semester abroad, the students were able to not only learn from my courses but also local faculty and immediately apply what they were learning to what they observed and experienced living in Mérida and traveling in other parts of Mexico and Costa Rica.”

Due to the global pandemic, in coordination with the Center for Global Citizenship, the decision was made to suspend the program on March 15.

Students spend a day at the beach during their semester abroad experience in Mérida, Mexico.

“All the students and faculty in Mérida were aware of the growing global crisis, but had been initially optimistic that we would be able to finish out the semester in Mexico,” Galatowitsch said. “Unfortunately, the situation changed very quickly within the first two weeks in March. While the number of cases in the Yucatan was low, by mid-March, the international situation, reductions in available flights, uncertainty of border restrictions and local government’s decisions to limit the potential spread of the virus by closing schools and promoting social distancing made our stay in Mexico untenable.”

While the study abroad portion in Merida was suspended, students were still able to finish the full semester. Galatowitsch, along with the Merida instructors, transitioned into teaching remotely using Zoom. Even though the second half of the semester was different from the first half, Galatowitsch said they were still able to make connections to what they experienced first-hand in Mexico.

“To have such an abrupt shift to a new learning environment and still have a robust second half of the semester was a testament to the perseverance and resilience of our students and commitment to teaching by our Merida instructors,” he added.

“While it was the right decision to send everyone home to finish the semester through distance learning, it was still difficult and emotional,” he continued. “It all happened so quickly that it was hard for many to process. Students had to cancel planned independent trips over spring break, spend more time with their host families and new friends in Mérida, and we were unable to have our much-anticipated trip to Costa Rica in early April. Fortunately, we had still been able to have already completed several field trips in the Yucatan Peninsula and a trip to Chiapas. Within days of suspending the Mérida portion of the course, the students were all home with their families.”

Claudia Chapa, Centre’s coordinator for the Mérida program, created a video that shares interviews with the “Mamas,” the homestay moms with whom the students live and form lasting relationships. The video illustrates the gratitude that the Mamas feel for the College, and the settings—mostly in their homes—help to dispel some of the stereotypes many have about Mexico.

by Kerry Steinhofer
June 29, 2020