- Students traveled to the Yucatan for a two-week immersion into the Mayan/Yucatan culture, which included a service-learning component.
- Through the Yucatan Experience, students were given the chance to explore and experience their roles as global citizens.
- Participants report a major shift in attitudes, beliefs and perspectives.
When Teaching is a Learning Experience
While many college students look forward to taking the summer off, 17 students from the University of Northern Colorado headed to the Yucatan to teach children—and ended up learning just as much as their students. The two-week-long Yucatan Experience immersed the UNC students in Yucatan culture as they taught children English through art, performance and plays, and in return, the children taught UNC’s students indelible lessons in community, culture and understanding.
Seth Morones, a Sociology major who is interested in global education and educational policies said the experience enriched his education and taught him to be aware of what’s truly going on around him. “The students who went on the trip came from a lot of different majors—theatre, sociology, photography, education—we incorporated our different life experiences into our lesson plans and could engage in different ways and on different levels.”
Theatre Arts major Virginia Jimenez said, “The biggest thing I got out of the service learning component was finding a way to be completely present with the children, instead of thinking about ‘this is my goal’ or ‘this is what I’m teaching today,’ it was less structured. It was easier to teach them through just being there with them, enjoying what we were talking about.”
UNC Associate Professor of Anthropology Mike Kimball has been leading the Yucatan Experience for several years, and loves to watch the personal transformations that happen when students leave their comfort zones behind in the United States. He tells of students sleeping in hammocks on a veranda near the jungle, where it’s dark, and the sounds of jungle animals, insects and frogs fill the air. “Initially, it can be frightening for students.” But attitudes shift. Students become integrated into the environment around them. They connect with the locals.
“It involves changing your mind about the world, and your expectations of it,” he says. “In a place like that, the world doesn’t give way to you, you have to reach out and it reaches back to you and there’s no letting go.”
Students began the program thinking they would be the ones teaching, but they soon found that they learned just as much from the children. They also had the chance to explore the region, including ancient pyramids, traditional villages, unexcavated temples, waterfalls, museums and city markets.
Cenotes, caves with underground pools of warm, blue water, hold significant meaning for the Yucatan, and in Mayan mythology are viewed as the gateway to the underworld. At one point, students shared their experiences while floating in cenotes, literally immersed in a place and culture that transformed a teaching experience into one of learning.
“Everything is so rich. To pass this up would be a mistake. It’s been an incredible experience,” said Devyn Kurtz.
“Now that I have been to the Yucatan and I have the experience with the service learning project, the phrase ‘bringing education to life’ has a completely different meaning,” concluded Jimenez.
“The most rewarding thing about this experience has been the building of communities and seeing how communities function. We’re all in this larger global community and we got to make a beautiful community on this trip where everyone genuinely cares about one other.” - Lauren Coppell
“Whether you’re interested in history, culture, education—there’s so much this trip this trip has to offer. It‘ll knock down barriers in your mind. It makes you hunger for experiencing this culture more, makes you hunger to reach out and find other people and other cultures and to connect with.” - Robert Burns