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For four groups of Monmouth students, Christmas break was a time to travel, learn

Barry McNamara
01/20/2017

Monmouth College student Chelsea Schupp ’18 of Schaumburg, Ill., plans to change the world because of a College trip she took over Christmas break.

Thanks to a gift from a friend of the College, Schupp was one of 43 students who took part in four academic trips over the break to Ecuador, Costa Rica and Mexico, and the Navajo nation in Arizona.

Costa Rica

Schupp and 14 others students spent 10 days in Costa Rica where they examined several topics, including eco-tourism, environmental issues and qualities that cause the Central American nation to lean toward Europe culturally and socially.

“Visiting a different country had the most unexpected effect on me,” Schupp said. “Being immersed in a new culture and learning how other groups of people in the world survive and interact with their environment really expanded my global perspective. I brought back with me an intense motivation to change the world, and I cannot wait to apply the knowledge I gained in Costa Rica to my Monmouth College experience.”

The trip to Costa Rica was led by Tim Gaster, a professor of modern languages, literatures and cultures who proposed the course, and Ken Cramer, a biology professor.

“It would be easier to say what we didn’t do,” Cramer said. “We took a night hike in a tropical forest; we took a couple boat tours; we visited a coffee plantation; we were at a little shop/factory that makes wheels for wooden ox carts, which is a big thing there; we were in the mountains; we were on the beach; and we even went zip-lining.”

As a biologist, Cramer appreciated the different types of wildlife, including crocodiles, sloths, white-faced capuchin monkeys, coatimundi (a raccoon-like species), and all sorts of birds, including toucans.

The students prepared for the four academic trips by reading materials that were assigned to them in November and December, and they also met with their faculty members for discussions. Final papers about the trips are due later this semester. One of the advantages of taking the academic trips between the fall and spring semesters was that students were allowed to focus on a single special topic.

Ecuador 

“Doing our study between semesters when we had time to reflect was advantageous intellectually and academically,” said educational studies professor Michelle Holschuh Simmons, who led a 10-student trip to Ecuador with anthropology professor Megan Hinrichsen.

“We weren’t pulled away by anything,” Simmons said. “We were able to focus and really discuss the issues we were seeing and connect it all back to our courses here at Monmouth.”

The Ecuador group examined education in the South American nation, focusing on how children of street and market vendors are educated.

“The theme of the trip was barriers to education,” said Simmons, whose students worked with the group United to Benefit Ecuadorian Children, International, a non-profit, non-government organization in Ecuador. “This was an amazing opportunity for our students to see the barriers in Ecuador firsthand and reflect on how those barriers play out both in Ecuador and in our own country.”

Hinrichsen, who has researched informal labor in Ecuador since 2011, said she was happy to return to a country where she lived for 15 months and “put my own research into action.”

“The students stayed with a host family while they were there, and they also got to meet the host family I had and see that our relationship is still strong,” Hinrichsen said. “My host family invited the students to come back and stay with them any time, so for me, personally, that was one of the best parts of the trip.”

Mexico 

In Mexico, 10 students explored Mayan attitudes toward nature, led by biology professor James Godde and psychology professor Joan Wertz. Godde and four of the students remained in Mexico to participate in the semester-long Monmouth in Merida program, joined by one of the Costa Rica participants.

Wertz said that animals were of interest to both academic disciplines on the trip. Psychology students learned about the influence of animals on Mayan culture through archaeological carvings found in Villahermosa depicting jaguars, owls, snakes and birds (“feathered dragons”). They also learned that Mayans believe animals appearing in dreams are how each person’s “animal spirit” communicates with them.

Wertz said that students’ ability to communicate in Spanish – and thus assist their professors – was “a fun flip on how things normally happen,” and she also appreciated finding a possible source of internships for the Global Public Health Triad that she directs at Monmouth.

Arizona 

Eight students traveled to the Navajo nation region of Arizona with educational studies professor Tammy LaPrad to learn about teaching pedagogy in a unique setting. Based in Flagstaff, the group traveled 25 miles east of the city to the STAR (Service to All Relations) School, a charter elementary school.

“I wanted our students to have a different educational experience from what they had growing up,” LaPrad said. “I wanted them to explore how they can affect kids (as teachers) – that they can make a difference.”

STAR certainly has an impact on its students, 80 percent of which are Navajo. The normal graduation rate for such students is 50 percent, but STAR reports a graduation rate of more than 80 percent.

“The students thought, ‘Something’s working here, even if it doesn’t feel like what I’m used to,’” LaPrad said. “We learned that relationships are important to them – relationships to the land, relationships with other students, relationships with adults and the community.”

And for Monmouth students such as Niaira Marshall ’17 of Chicago, the trips helped solidify career ambitions.

“Due to the amazing experience I had, my passion for justice, dismantling structural inequalities and working for marginalized groups has become even stronger,” she said. “I am so eager about my future and starting up my own non-profit organization.”