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Eight students complete ‘Monmouth in Mérida’ program

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – A semester study-abroad experience in Mexico gave eight Monmouth College students a new outlook on the world.

“I learned how to adapt to new surroundings, and I learned patience,” said Jamiya Johnson ’19 of Pekin, Ill., one of the participants in the College’s “Monmouth in Mérida” program. “I now have a better understanding of others outside my culture, and I have more empathy for them.”

Joining Johnson as participants in the program’s third year were May graduates Connie Stiller of Des Plaines, Ill., and Josh Weber of Monmouth, seniors Akua Boateng of Tema, Ghana, Alex Pepple of Galesburg, Ill., and Taylar Tramil of Chicago, junior Ta’Keya Thompson of Chicago and sophomore Danielle Ito-LaBelle of Chicago. The students were led by Monmouth faculty members Ken Cramer and Trudi Peterson.

“Monmouth in Mérida” immerses students in a Spanish-speaking culture for a full semester at the same cost as staying on campus. In addition to their regular courses – which includes two taught in Spanish – students have an optional service-learning opportunity and stay with host families.

“The cost of the semester even includes airfare, so it’s a pretty good deal,” said Cramer, who noted that Mérida is known as the safest city in Mexico.

Johnson’s improved Spanish is evidence that the program’s language strategy succeeded.

“Being in Mexico for four months really increased my understanding of Spanish and being able to hear the language,” she said. “My speaking improved so much from hardly being able to put together sentences to having full conversations.”

“The semester impacted more of my Spanish understanding but at the end of the day, being in the environment helped improve my Spanish-speaking ability,” said Boateng. “I Iearned to be more tolerant from the trip and open-minded to different cultures.”

The group took biweekly excursions outside of Mérida to cenotes, ruins, natural areas and a Mayan village, giving them broad exposure to local culture, both ancient and modern. Among the places visited were Celestún, known for its unique coastal ecology; Chichen Itza, a large pre-Columbian city built by the Mayans; and Sisbichén, a small Mexican village.

“My favorite trip was the one we made to Celestún,” said Boateng. “I enjoyed seeing the famous flamingos, but I also think it was my favorite because it was our first trip and I was excited to explore.”

There was also a special trip to Cuba, which Johnson enthusiastically named as a highlight of the semester.

“I loved our trip to Cuba!” she said. “It was an eye-opening experience, and it really shifted my perspective. It made me appreciate the little things in life that we usually disregard.”

Peterson said she had many memorable experiences simply exploring Mérida. She made it a point to visit all the signs that comprise Esquinas de Mérida (the Corners of Mérida).

“The signs are how people gave directions,” she said of the colorful tiles on buildings, some of which date to the 1700s. “They might say, ‘Turn left at the blind parrot.’ It was like a prolonged Easter egg hunt for me. I meandered all around town, and I eventually found all 254 of the signs. Some days I’d walk 10 miles. There was a surprise around every corner.”