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
“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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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
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.”
“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.”