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Belize Holiday Trip Brings About Life-changing Experiences

Published: April 15, 2009

Self esteem.
Personal growth.
Energy consciousness.

Those are just some of the things 21 CSULB students took away from their 12-day experience in Belize as part of a Christmas holiday course that focused on class time, the tourism industry and community service.

“I’d never done anything like this where we helped people build and repair something, so that was why I really excited about this project,” said Caroline Lusby, an assistant professor in Recreation and Leisure Studies who teaches all the tourism classes in the department and led the excursion. The class, “Rec 490: Special Topics and Tourism,” was offered for the first time.

During the fall semester planning, students were serious about the trip as you would expect of anyone shelling out $2,800 for airfare and all activities, and the guarantee of no luxury conditions. The trip focused on helping a village in Belize that Lusby had become acquainted with during a personal vacation the prior summer. Initially, the plan was to help rebuild and upgrade a local restaurant, but once the group arrived on location, weather, in part, caused a change in priorities and getting a new roof on the facility moved to the top of the list.

“We asked the village to prioritize what they needed and they needed the roof fixed first. We’re not roofers so we donated money towards fixing the roof and what we did was paint their library,” said Lusby, who began at CSULB in 2007 and has a quite diverse background having been born and raised in Germany, and earning a bachelor’s degree from East Carolina University, a master’s degree in Holland and her Ph.D. at the University of Florida.

“Groups that go to this area bring books so they have a really good library, but it’s kind of falling apart so we bought the paint and brushes and we painted the library for them. And you know, with 21 students it goes amazingly fast. Plus, we painted another school in another district in Armenia and that school is even poorer. The main thing is not the work, because the people there are more than willing to work, but they can’t afford supplies. The school principal, the village chief, and parents showed up to help.”

One of the reasons Belize was selected as a winter session destination is that it is marketing itself as a sustainable tourism destination, highlighted by rain forests; the third-largest barrier reef in the world (Belize Barrier Reef System); the Blue Hole, one of the top 10 diving sites in the world; and, of course, a lot of undeveloped nature with great promise.

“If they do a good job of developing their tourism, they will do well,” said Lusby, “and they will profit from it instead of having their resources exploited.”

Lusby noted that one of the villages is right next to one of the greatest Mayan sites and cruise ships come in, but then spend only 20 minutes before leaving, so none of the profits really trickle down to the village that’s right next to it.

“There’s no electricity except for a few hours every night, so that tells you it’s a very, very poor village,” she said. “These are the kind of things that need to change if they are going to have any level of tourism success.”

Another reason Lusby chose the particular area was because its first language is English so students could interact with the natives, making it easier to get that cultural exposure.

The trip had daily class elements to it, as well as a number of planned and unplanned recreational activities. An individual from the Belize tourist ministry spoke to the class and a resort put on a workshop about sustainable tourism there and the certification they went through and changes they made. The unplanned included dealing with pouring rain, insect attacks, the limited electrical power access and, of course, less-than-familiar surroundings to get accustomed to, all of which helped create a well-rounded experience for the students.

“I think our group really came together to accomplish some challenges we don’t normally encounter in our everyday lives,” said Dave Valle, a graduate student in education from La Habra. “I think many people on the trip were not really aware of what it means to be poor and live in a country with not as high a standard of living as we have in the United States. This trip shed some light on our understanding of more global issues.”

Belize Tripe
Students painting library in Belize.

For some students, the trip to Belize was their first foray to a foreign country, which revealed surroundings and circumstances they had previously only read about or seen in the media.

“With this being my first trip, it really opened my eyes to the reality that much of the world is not like living in sunny California,” said Melissa Hernandez, a junior recreation and leisure studies major from Placentia. “This trip gave me more self esteem and now I feel like I can conquer anything I put my mind to.”

John Montes, a junior recreation and leisure studies major from Lakewood, also felt the trip created a change within him and how he views things today.

“Personally, I grew a lot on this trip,” said Montes. “I have always been outgoing, but have always been very shy. This trip changed that a lot. I became very talkative and opened up. My biggest epiphany was that in the USA we are so focused on money and material objects that we never focus on the more simple things like being with family and making others happy or just going outside and talking to a neighbor. I also realized that I can do more than what I originally thought.”

In addition to painting a library, playing games such as soccer with school children and providing much-needed school supplies, CSULB students also realized that teamwork is important and that they can survive without the luxuries they have day-to-day when home.

“As a group, we accomplished so much in Belize,” said Brandy Bandaruk, a senior recreation and leisure studies major from San Clemente. “We were a great team on this trip and I learned so much about myself like I can survive without access to my normal, everyday electronics such as my laptop, cell phone, and iPod. I’m also more conscious about saving energy by remembering to turn off the lights when I leave a room and by taking shorter showers. And I did things I never thought I would do such as hold a tarantula and baby crocodile, climb a giant Mayan temple, and snorkel with giant spotted eagle rays. This trip gave me a huge confidence boost, and now I feel like I can try some extreme sports like skydiving and hang-gliding.”

Lusby said the students were very attentive throughout the trip and graduate students were each given a topic so they could hold class on it.

“We would do maybe an hour of class time a day,” she said. “We had short segments so they could really stay focused and it would always be something that related to the experience of the day so it made sense. It went hand-in-hand. They learned the principles and they applied them right away and I think that is what kept them really interested in it and on track.”

Lusby hopes that this trip will be an annual event.

“The student’s attitude was amazing and everything went really, really well,” she said. “It was such an amazing experience for the students and I could see how it changed them. The experience I had with the students was very meaningful to me. I am hoping that we can build this into an ongoing project and can go back every year.”