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Alternative Spring BAE travelers bring lessons of Belize home to changed U.S.

March 30, 2020
Alternative Spring BAE 2020

Looking for silver linings has quickly become a daily, and necessary, healing priority for a struggling world.

Viral videos of exhausted doctors performing John Lennon’s “Imagine” in a hospital lobby. Of relatives waving through windows at their loved ones in nursing homes. Of residential parades hastily organized to cheer children celebrating birthdays without parties.

For students participating in the NIU College of Education’s Alternative Spring BAE (Belizean Academic Experience) trip over Spring Break, the search for a dose of sunlight transports them back to Belize.

Jenn Jacobs, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, and Karisa Fuerniss, a graduate student in the department, realize that the trip means more now than it normally would any other year for their student-travelers.

“Belizeans are abundantly welcoming and positive people that have this way of completely living in the moment and not letting outside stressors affect them,” Jacobs says.

“Clearly, this was an awesome reprieve for a bunch of American college students trying to escape the health crises at home,” she adds. “We were pretty tuned out of the news, and got great practice staying focused on our mission.”

Meanwhile, Fuerniss adds, “the opportunity for students to experience a different country at this point in our degree programs is monumental.”

“The things that we learned about cross-cultural communication will not only help us become stronger community members during our remaining time at NIU, but this experience will also transfer into each of our professional careers, allowing us to serve others more effectively,” Fuerniss says.

Her experiences in Belize as a master’s and doctoral student “helped equip me to prioritize equity in my teaching,” she adds, “and have provided a foundation for me to establish programs like these for students when I become a faculty member.”

Alternative Spring BAE 2020
Alternative Spring BAE 2020

Jacobs and Fuerniss served as co-leaders of this Engage Global journey, working together throughout idea inception, U.S. Department of State grant acquisition, program delivery and, now, a research-and-evaluation phase.

While in Belize, the two and the group of NIU students – Emma Baumert, Barrett Kaeb, Kelsey Kunz, Benjamin Lee, Joseph Mwachullah and Lisa Wajrowski – presented a national women’s sports summit to help females learn to advocate for themselves in their education and their careers.

“It’s always tough to come home from these trips. I’ve been checking in with the students and we are all experiencing the ‘Post Belize Blues,’ ” Jacobs says.

“You go from a week of intense stimulation and powerful connection, taking in the newness of everything and envisioning yourself a part of this foreign culture – and then it’s abruptly over,” she adds. “Even two weeks later, I’m messaging with some of my Belizean colleagues and they’ve told me the BAE students are keeping in touch. We might have left Belize, but it hasn’t left us.”

  • “Ben is helping the national sports coordinators draw up a girls’ sports equity policy to propose to the government.”
  • “Barrett and Emma are going to do a live online workout with our partner, Kaya Cattouse, and other Belizean coaches.”
  • “Joe has been sending encouragements every day to a college student who just started a youth organization in his village of Bella Vista.”

And the travelers also been messaging College of Education Dean Laurie Elish-Piper with notes of gratitude.

Lisa Wajrowski
Lisa Wajrowski

from Lisa Wajrowski:
“Belize means the absolute WORLD to me. I can truly say this from the deepest depths of my heart and soul. As I write this, tears are beginning to form in my eyes; my heart and soul are still in Belize, not ever ready to leave. To say this was an experience of a lifetime just does not nearly begin to suffice. Getting on the plane to head to Belize, I was a nervous individual. I was timid, lacked confidence, and was ignorant to a world outside of my hometown. My life has been lived in a shell. I had very little exposure to teaching and coaching the youth. I worried when things didn’t align according to the plan; my ability to feel content in schedule and time variation was absent. The person getting off this plane is so beyond all those past qualities. My eyes, mind, heart, and deepest part of my soul have been opened and exposed to life’s truly greatest blessings. To feel the depths of true strength, confidence, inspiration, motivation and love I did is unparalleled to ALL else. This trip has made me realize I want my future to be spent inspiring the youth. My soul has been touched through touching the souls of young girls. Building connections with these young girls, and the other Belizeans has overfilled my heart with pure bliss, love, empowerment, strength, beauty, inspiration, euphoria, and unfathomable feelings of all else.” – read the whole letter

from Ben Lee:
“Thank you so much for enabling and supporting my second trip to Belize this Spring! Your support for Engage Global program’s like this helped us put on the first ever Women’s Sports Summit in Belize! The BAE (Belizeans Advocating for Equity) Sports Summit really helped me grow as a confident leader. As you know, last year’s trip really impacted my life. However, I would say that this year was even more impactful and cemented a place for Belize in my heart.” – read the whole letter

Barrett Kaeb
Barrett Kaeb

from Barrett Kaeb:
“I entered this trip with so much curiosity about myself, what I should be doing in the future, and about life outside of the United States. This trip impacted me in so many ways, but one of the strongest ways it impacted me was that it showed me how much I truly care about relationships. In Belize, they focus on living in the moment, counting on one another and building on relationships. During my time in Belize, I have never felt more at home. I learned that my values matched those in Belize and how these new relationships inspired me to ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’ Through the relationships I built in Belize, I had lots of face-to -face conversations and heard the first-hand struggles they face daily. I heard the pain in their voices, and it showed me how privileged we are here and how important it is that we use our privilege to help others. Through this experience, I learned that someday I need to live in a country like Belize and my purpose on this earth is to fight for others who do not have the same opportunity as me.” – read the whole letter

from Kelsey Kunz:
“The feeling I felt after each of the summit days and returning home for Belize reassured me that I am exactly where I was always meant to be, teaching. The personal growth I experienced will not only impact myself, but the future students I get the chance to work with. I am an NIU Huskies, and I have never been more proud to say that, because we are making a difference in the country of Belize and in our own lives. I am proud of what this university has done for my personal growth, the country of Belize, and what I hope they will continue to do.” – read the whole letter

Joseph Mwachullah
Joseph Mwachullah

from Joseph Mwachullah:
“This trip was life-changing, I’ve found I have the ability to do things I would’ve never imagined. While in Belize, I led an intense panel discussion that changed my life and set the tone for the remainder of the summit. In the panel we addressed the social issues and started discussing how we can make a change. Something I’ve always feared was public speaking and for me to go up on stage and fostering discussions with the great people in Belize is a moment I’ll never forget. Being a part of this team is something special. We push each other to be great and always have each other’s back. I’m so grateful that Dr. Jacobs and the team believed in me and allowed me to experience something so great.” – read the whole letter

Their proud professor loves the letters.

“When you hear the words, ‘Now I know I’ve chosen the right career,’ that’s when I know this experience did its job,” Jacobs says.

Belize is an easy country to fall in love with, so the sentiments about ‘coming back’ or ‘wanting to live there someday,’ I’m pretty used to. I said the same things when I first visited Belize as a graduate student in 2014,” she adds. “But it’s when you hear the students think out loud about how their vocations and professional identities will be impacted and deepened going forward – that’s the essence of these Engage trips.”

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