My time in Belize is hard to summarize in an "overview" or even in a "highlight reel." People have often asked me since getting back, "Forrest, what was the coolest thing you did in Belize" or "What were your highlights?" I did indeed have the opportunity to do quite a few cool things and there are absolutely certain highlights of my trip. These anecdotes, however, don’t accurately convey the broader impacts of the trip. Because, at the end of the day, the cool activities we did in Belize (zip-lining, snorkeling, cave tubing, spear-fishing—the list goes on) aren’t impossible to do elsewhere. I could do—as well as study—all those things in the U.S. (although all these activities are certainly enhanced by specific aspects of Belize that might not be available elsewhere) and not have to spend money on plane tickets.
So what made this trip memorable? Why will I look back on it for the rest of my life with joyful fondness? The answers to these questions are tied deeply to the very fundamental reasons that Luther invests so heavily in global learning. For me, the two most powerful aspects of the trip were one: being immersed in the culture and environment of a young, non-euro-normative, developing nation; and two: experiencing this world along with a group of peers who, for the most part, transitioned from strangers or acquaintances to a close-knit group of friends in the span of a couple weeks. Luther highlights these two benefits of global learning and is very much aware of how impactful these experiences can be. In this post I will talk about the first aspect: my first experience in a developing nation and first experience in a country that is not based entirely in conventional western culture.
The first place we stayed at in Belize was Nabatunich, a barebones eco-resort in the Western Cayo District about 10 minutes from the Guatemalan border. Santiago, the man who owns the resort (his parents started the business), is a prominent figure in the Socialist party in Belize and stayed up late talking with me and a few other Luther students every night we were staying with him. He gave us incredibly comprehensive and knowledgable insight into the inter-workings of both Belizean politics and culture. It was very valuable to have these conversations early in the trip because they helped me navigate, notice, and understand certain things that I observed the rest of the trip. It was the first time that I was immersed in a culture that not only challenged certain ideas and values at the core of western culture, but often lived in complete independence from them (at least in the interior of the country—the coastal islands are much more westernized).
Ideas of fairness, family, poverty, accountability, corruption, and so many other topics have fundamentally different meanings to Belizeans. To delve into the inner workings of these differences would be an unreasonable undertaking in a single blog post but the relevance that these experiences have to an admissions blog still stands. I, along with my classmates, were given the chance to realize that the fundamental concepts that we build our society and lives around are just that: concepts. Not universal truths, not laws of physics or human nature, but relatively arbitrary ideas that we attribute value to. Not to say that they aren’t important or that they do no good, just that they are purely idealogical in nature.
This is one of the biggest benefits of study abroad. While the class I took was incredibly interesting, thought provoking, and perhaps unusually relevant to the cultural exploring I was doing outside of class, I will not remember the statistics or specific facts we learned over J-Term in 20 years. What I will never forget though is the way a different lens of looking at the world came into focus in a way I had never experienced before. While I think these relativisms are perhaps more obvious in a non-euro-normative destination, I think this awareness can be bolstered on any trip to a new culture—whether in Europe, Canada, or even here in the U.S.