Finding Commonalities, Building Friendships: An Immersion Experience in Belize

Written by: Annie McClure (15′ Loyola University of New Orleans)

Sometimes the hardest part of an immersion experience is returning home. Everything feels, looks, tastes, and sounds a little different than it did before. Fielding questions about your experience can be exciting, an excellent opportunity to share with others a little bit about another world, a different culture. But, it can also be taxing and frustrating not being able to adequately put your experience into words.

I recently returned from a 23-day immersion experience in Belize, Central America. A group of 10 other Loyola University of New Orleans students and I, along with five staff members, ran the two-week long ‘Umadagu Lescuela’ summer camp in the coastal town of Dangriga. For two weeks each of us was paired with a local Garifuna young person as our co-teacher in the classroom. In the mornings we were teachers, responsible for creating our own lesson plans, and in the afternoons we were coaches, leading the kids in volleyball, soccer, basketball, and children’s games.

Often I am asked about the hardships that came with teaching in Belize. There were challenges. I experienced moments of sadness knowing a child had not eaten breakfast that morning, or seeing a young boy becoming frustrated at an attempt to write his name. But, the pure joy of these children quelled any emotion of despair or frustration. Because when people ask me about my teaching experience all I can picture are my 22 five to seven year-old students singing, “Old McDonald had a Farm” at the top of their lungs, the joy in their eyes when I pulled out feathers for a bird-making craft, or their pleas for me to re-read “The Giving Tree” a second time.

I think the purpose of an immersion experience is to find commonalities between a foreign land and the one we know so well. The joy of seeing a child smile after you praise their art project is universal. Though the people in Belize undoubtedly live a simpler life, without the lavishness we have the habit of surrounding ourselves with, people are still just people. Once I was able to fully immerse myself in Belize, my eyes weren’t focused on the lack of air conditioning, dirt roads, wooden houses, or ants crawling around the classroom. This became understood and internalized. Instead, I noticed the beautiful Caribbean ocean; I felt the unforgiving tropical rain. I soaked up the culture, the fresh produce, and the music. Though far away from the States, I felt at home.

The night before we were leaving Dangriga I was hugging one of my students goodbye, and I heard her mutter something into my leg. Then her 7-year-old eyes, looked up at me, wet with impending tears, and I realized she had said, “I will never forget you.” I knew I wouldn’t forget her either. And for that moment it was understood that we had made an impact in each other’s lives. Though slight it may have been, we were connected. And in the end, I think that is enough.