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UNF/Belize program: 30 years and counting

A father and daughter from Belize tour UNF's campus

When Arianne Jones arrived last month to begin the fall semester at the University of North Florida, she followed in the footsteps of her father, as well as hundreds of other Belizean students before her who have earned degrees from UNF.

 

Some, like her dad, Paul Jones, ‘91, took that step in their educational journey right here on the Jacksonville campus. Others studied in UNF-run programs made available to them in Belize, a multicultural nation located below Mexico on the western edge of the Caribbean Sea.

 

Growing up, Arianne remembers seeing stacks of books and other school supplies labeled “UNF” and asking her father what the letters stood for. Now that she will be attending his alma mater, Arianne — who will be majoring in computing and information science — says she couldn’t be any prouder.

 

“I have big shoes to fill,” Arianne said. “Dad has made something great of himself, and I can only hope this is the beginning of my journey in the same direction.”

 

The partnership between UNF and the Central American nation dates back 30 years, and it’s a story of symbiotic benefits, bonds of trust, lifelong friendships, personal sacrifices and individual successes.

 

The program has produced more than 550 UNF graduates living and working in Belize, many holding high-ranking positions in education, business, law, politics, the arts, sciences and many other fields.

 

“When you have UNF graduates who are the top leaders in schools, in government, in business, you’ve got to have an impact on the country,” said Dr. Betty Flinchum, an emeritus professor in UNF’s College of Education and Human Services (COEHS) and a founding faculty member at the University.

 

In 1985, it was Flinchum who first applied for a University Affiliation Grant through the United States Information Agency for an exchange program between educational administrators at UNF and in Belize.

 

WHY BELIZE?  

 

Flinchum already had firsthand knowledge of the country, having visited educational programs in schools there previously. In the mid-80s, Belize had just gained its independence from Great Britain and, as our closest English-speaking neighbor in Central America, seemed like a good fit.

 

There was another parallel, too. “We [UNF] were still a developing university and they were a developing country,” recalls Flinchum, who retired in 2006.

 

It was clear then that establishing ties between Belize and the academic institution would broaden the horizons of each. When talking to Flinchum, her passion and pride for the longstanding program is obvious — and there is a lot to be proud of.

 

UNF STUDENTS AND FACULTY WORK IN BELIZEAN CLASSROOMS A UNF student in Belize poses with her class

 

In the 1990s, undergraduate and graduate education students began making regular trips — usually two or three weeks, in a few cases longer — to Belize, putting their teaching skills to use in classrooms across the country. The trips continue today. In most cases, UNF students are placed in elementary schools, often with thatched roofs, in small rural villages. Students have been accompanied by UNF faculty and administrators and, as the program went on, overseen by Belizean teachers, many who also have advanced degrees from UNF’s exchange program.

 

While the idea originally had been to stay with host families there, in more recent years groups have bunked together in hostel-like facilities run by local churches. In addition to exploring the tropical landscape, students absorb the culture of the country and its ethnic diversity.

 

Cohorts of professors from the College of Education and Human Services have led classes at sites across the country, so it’s not just UNF students who have had the chance to experience the multiculturalism of the country.

 

MANY BELIZEANS RECEIVED UNF DEGREES WHILE IN BELIZE

 

Through UNF’s master’s in education program, teachers and administrators working in schools in Belize have had the chance to earn a degree from the University of North Florida while in Belize, where many might not have had access to such a program.

 

Dr. Pritchy Smith oversaw the master’s degree program in Belize for more than 10 years before retiring from UNF five years ago, and said, “I think we really did help transform the public education system in Belize.”

 

In arming teachers with the skills to become better educators and assume leadership roles, UNF has effectively helped shape the educational system of Belize, a nation where 40 percent of the population is of school age.

 

Dr. Alberto Luis August received his master’s degree in secondary education and a doctorate in educational leadership from UNF. August found the UNF/Belize program unique because the professors delivering the courses had knowledge of Belize and were able to accommodate the diverse cultures. “These were not simply professors visiting for one semester to share their knowledge or theory of their course,” he said. “They had visited Belize, they lived with the Belize people, they interacted with us.”

 

Patrick Faber, a Belizean who received his master’s degree in educational leadership from UNF, has served for three terms as the minister of education in Belize. In June, he also was named deputy to the prime minister of the country. Faber believes one of the reasons the educational partnership UNF established with Belize three decades ago has been so successful is that the university and its faculty have always been acutely aware and respectful of the multicultural population of the nation.

 

“UNF has never attempted to force the U.S. system of education upon us,” said Faber. “I think one of the reasons the relationship has been so positive is that UNF has always tried to engage partners in Belize to see what our needs are.” 

 

BELIZEANS WELCOMED AT UNF

 

The program also opened the door to qualified Belizean students accepted to study on the UNF campus in Northeast Florida, with many of them practicing their teaching skills in the Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville.

 

In addition, UNF professors helped found the Consortium on Belize Educational Cooperation (COBEC) which continues to enable more students to come to the U.S. to advance their studies at higher learning institutions. “That consortium has helped Belize’s development tremendously,” said Faber.

 

It’s important to point out, however, that the relationship with Belize has been a true mutual partnership, with UNF benefiting just as much as Belizean schools and students have all these years.

 

PROGRAM YIELDS TRANSFORMATIONAL EXPERIENCES  

 

The program has allowed for some amazing research and study abroad experiences for education students, but also others in nutrition, physical therapy and business programs, often made possible with funding through UNF’s Transformational Learning Opportunities initiative.

 

It has also elevated the University’s international profile and created a more diverse student body, thanks in large part to strides made by Flinchum.

 

Having logged more than 100 trips to Belize with students and faculty over the past 20 years, Dr. John Kemppainen, director of academic advising and the ombudsman for teacher education in COEHS, has witnessed the transformation of UNF’s education students traveling abroad. Melissa Ramos was a student placed in a Mayan school, the KuxLin Ha Primary Government School, during a 2014 trip. For her, the experience was an opportunity for learning and personal growth.

 

“As I further developed my teaching skills, I discovered so much about myself,” Ramos said. “I feel blessed to have had the chance to take away skills from two varied cultures and create my own philosophy. The experience was rewarding in ways I never imagined.”

 

Kemppainen has seen changes in the country, too. Beyond more obvious improvements to the nation’s development, such as infrastructure, Kemppainen said, “I think there’s an energy that’s being built up in the country, of striving to be better.”

 

Carol Babb, who received a master’s degree from UNF and is now the chief education officer for the country’s Ministry of Education, said the leadership training “changed the educational landscape in Belize … this training changed attitudes and built [human] capacity in Belize.”

 

Just one aspect of the UNF legacy is the long list of graduates from the University of North Florida, many of whom, like Babb, are now part of Faber’s team at the Ministry of Education and are working to further boost the rigor of the schools and programs available to students in Belize.

 

 “We have had similar experiences, are of like minds and have common goals,” said Faber. “People understand what we’re trying to do in the Ministry and that makes for a harmonious chorus.”

 

PARTNERSHIP STRONG AFTER THREE DECADES

 

Through a $90,000 grant co-authored by Kemppainen and Dr. Susan Syverud and funded by the UNF International Center, a three-year initiative was begun in 2015 to share best teaching practices with a Mayan-run primary school in Belmopan, Belize. A delegation of teachers from Belize visited the Duval schools in Jacksonville last year, learning how to reach children with special needs, as well as those performing below age or grade level.

 

UNF faculty have also traveled to Belize to lead professional training workshops with teachers there. The hope is to place UNF education students as soon as this fall in classrooms at the Mayan school where University faculty can observe them remotely through a monitoring robot and offer constructive feedback.

 

Thanks to UNF’s reputation for quality education among Belizean students, many like Arianne Jones continue to flock to the University for undergrad and advanced degrees. Arianne is excited to experience campus life this fall.

 

Paul Jones, who owns a computer consulting company, believes one of the greatest gifts the partnership with UNF has given students in his home nation is hope that higher education is now attainable. “That was not necessarily the case when I was growing up,” he said.

 

The longevity of the program can largely be attributed to the motivation and dedication of its stewards. “The individuals behind it have had the passion to champion it,” said Kemppainen. “I think we’re just really committed to it.”

 

Faber agrees.

 

“These people have a love of Belize that is really unmatched, and they’re the ones who have kept the fire burning for 30 years,” Faber said. “It’s truly amazing how a relatively small university could impact an entire nation, but it has.”