Penn State DuBois students and faculty experience spring break honors trip

March 25, 2005

The chance to see exotic birds and tropical fish, walk the ruins of an ancient civilization and survive two flat tires on a rental vehicle all were highlights of the recent Penn State DuBois Honors Program spring break trip. But ultimately, it was the opportunity for the travelers to immerse themselves for a few days in another culture that made the greatest impression on both faculty and students.

"The most memorable part of the trip for me came during our visit to Coba," said Charles Boykin, assistant professor of mathematics and campus coordinator of the Honors Program. "In a small, rural village, I got to meet and interact with the local population. We played soccer, and the following day, I was invited to tour the middle school by one of the seventh-grade teachers. The people there were very inviting and eager to share in cultural exchange."

Boykin was joined on the trip by veteran program coordinator James E. May, an associate professor of English who is on sabbatical this semester but returned to lead the annual outing along with Boykin and faculty colleague Harold Webster, associate professor of biology. The trio led a group of seven students on the weeklong, 1,100-kilometer expedition that took them to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.

Student participants in the program included Joseph Baker of Houtzdale; Lee Lindemuth of Tidioute and his wife, Julie; Teri MacTavish of West Decatur; Kody Messerschmidt of Berwick; Martha Poague of Johnsonburg; Jade Russell of Bensalem; and Tina Songer of DuBois.

The travelers departed from Pittsburgh on Sunday, March 6, and by early evening had arrived at their first night accommodations at the Villa Arqueologica de Chichen Itza.

"In the second week of March, the Yucatan was emerging from its dry season, which begins in November," said Boykin. "Although it had rained in recent weeks, the weather was warm and sunny, with temperatures ranging from the high 60s at night to the mid-90s in the day. Daily hikes in the hot sun were followed by daily swims."

Monday's itinerary began with 6 a.m. bird-watching for some and exploration of Chichen Itza's ruins for all. They then pointed the rental vehicles north to see Izamal, a large Franciscan mission built atop a huge pyramid in the 16th century and then eventually on to Merida, where they stayed two nights.

Tuesday's agenda included stops in a tortilla factory and a side trip by boat to a nearby estuary that is home to countless species of exotic birds, including some 40,000 flamingos. They returned to Merida in time to explore the city markets and explore the shops and restaurants.

Wednesday saw the group move south to explore the ruins at Uxmal, and all were impressed by the magnificent Mayan temples and palaces.

Daybreak bird-watching began the day on Thursday, followed by travel through several towns back past their arrival point at Chichen Itza and eventually to their next hotel at Lake Coba, where the travelers spied egret and heron -- and alligators -- along the marshy shores.

After an early rise for all the next day, a flat tire on a rental van -- the second flat of the journey -- delayed the trip to the coast. Finally reaching the sea, the group snorkeled in the bay, spotting many species of tropical fish, including a 5-foot barracuda nicknamed Bob by the workers at the dive shop. The final overnight was spent at Playa del Carmen where they enjoyed beautiful scenery, as well as street musicians and vendors.

The better part of Saturday was spent en route from Mexico, but connections were made on time and by 9:30 p.m. the travelers were back in DuBois.

Veteran traveler May had a positive summation of the experience. "We were fortunate to enjoy a splendid sojourn in the Yucatan, one long enough and adventurous enough to build some character, discover the diversity of the world and secure fond and beautiful memories. Our days were free of rain, delayed connections, illness, theft and quarrels. The students were cautious about foods and exposure to the sun."

May said it was a eye-opening experience for most of the participants. "Aside from Lee, a veteran who'd served in Somalia and elsewhere, the students were largely Americans without much international exposure for whom the trip was a good initiation into the diversity of human life, past and present."

He said the simple dwellings and the absence of television and automobiles impressed the students. They observed the lack of facilities for the handicapped.

"In many respects they witnessed multiple societies living in close proximity; one with generators providing electricity only for the evening, the other with Internet cafes and strip malls similar to those in the United States. They were surprised by the grandeur of the preColumbian cities and by the beauty of the coral reefs and the enormous productivity of wetlands, both areas that are threatened worldwide."

May said the travelers also gained an introduction to air travel and negotiating a world of diverse tongues. He said their shared experiences on the trip strengthened their social, moral and environmental awareness and fueled their respective interests in anthropology, history, culture, Spanish, botany and zoology.

"The trip was a tremendous opportunity to learn history and culture and to observe wildlife," said Lee Lindemuth, a sophomore in wildlife technology. "Whether we were touring Mayan ruins, walking the streets of Merida or taking early morning birding walks, we were always learning something new. The experience of witnessing so much I'd only read or heard about will stay with me for a lifetime."

"I really enjoyed the trip to Mexico. I have studied Spanish and the culture in classes but actually being there and being able to experience it first-hand was amazing," added Teri MacTavish, a freshman in engineering. "I learned a lot more about the Mexican culture and its history from the trip than I could have from a class. The trip was a great experience for me and one that I'll always remember."

"Going to the interior of the Yucatan peninsula instead of taking a more typical college break at Cancun provided me with one of the most interesting and enlightening trips I've ever taken," said Kody Messerschmit, a sophomore in wildlife technology. "I enjoyed the breathtaking views we caught of wildlife. I also enjoyed being able to learn about the history of the people and seeing how they live. Nothing was what I expected, from the Mayan temples to the poverty-stricken towns. It really taught me that I should be more appreciative of the life I am living in the United States."

Expenses for the trip were born in part by the participants and in part by the campus budgets, grants for the faculty from the DuBois Educational Foundation and funds for the students from the Commonwealth College Honors program budget.

The Penn State DuBois honors program has alternated annual trips between Mexico and London for several years, and plans already are under way for a trip to London in spring of 2006. An alternate to future Mexico trips also is being considered. That itinerary would take students to the Grand Canyon and some of the lower-elevation national parks in the American southwest.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009