SARASOTA, Fla. (Oct. 21, 2016) The colonial architecture, nearby Mayan ruins and wonders like the Loltun cave system left little doubt to USF Sarasota-Manatee Spanish instructor Prof. Roberto Jimenez-Arroyo that Merida, Mexico, would make an ideal destination for visiting students.
This summer he and colleague Prof. Mike Fehily transformed that notion into a reality, guiding nine of their students to Merida, and now USFSM is sowing seeds for what could become an annual journey of study-abroad students to the old colonial city.
“Every time I go I fall in love with the place,” said Prof. Jimenez, who’s visited Merida a half-dozen times since 2012.
Three years ago the Spanish faculty and Dr. Jane Rose, dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences, resolved to begin a study-abroad program in Merida, the idea being to immerse students in the city’s traditions and way of life and open their eyes to Latin American culture.
In addition to locating host families for the students, they established a partnership with language school Habla: The Center for Language and Culture and turned to USFSM’s Global Engagement Office for help planning and raising scholarship funds. The students traveled to Merida from May 11 to June 14 in what represented USFSM’s first study-abroad experience there.
“The biggest challenge in providing faculty-led study abroad for students is establishing the program, finding partners ‘in country’ to assure that students have a safe and meaningful learning experience,” Dr. Rose said. “Once this is in place, it is important to keep the program going so students can count on, and plan for, having this opportunity as part of their university experience. Thanks to the hard work of our faculty, our study-abroad program for deep learning of Spanish language and Mexican culture in Merida is solidly in place.”
It was intended that the students live as locals, staying with Mexican families instead of in dormitories so they become better acquainted with local customs. After daily lessons in Spanish and Latin American culture at Habla, they were free to return to their host families or explore historical and cultural sites such as the Plaza Grande and Gran Museo de Mundo Maya, along with the city’s abundant shops, outdoor vendors and taquerias.
The region’s capital city situated in the northwest of the Yucatan Peninsula, Merida is also one of Latin America’s safest cities, celebrating both its Mexican and European heritages while identifying strongly with its ancient Mayan roots. Mayan-style street festivals with costumed actors occur regularly, and within a few hours lie several Mayan archeological sites including, famously, Chichen Itza and Uxmal.
For these reasons, and because Merida is one of Sarasota’s sister cities, Dean Rose thought it might make an ideal study-abroad destination. Additionally, Prof. Fehily is director of sister cities for Merida.
“The people of Merida are so welcoming,” Prof. Jimenez said. “You see so many people from so many different parts of the world living happily together. There’s a large ex-pat population in Merida.”
After meeting their host families, the students settled into a routine. Mornings were reserved for classroom lessons. Thursdays were set aside for “cultural visits” to galleries and museums and on Saturdays they boarded a bus for trips to nearby villages and historical sites. The rest of the time was theirs to explore and discover.
Psychology major Lauren Burrell said she enjoyed delving into Merida’s culture.
As in much of Mexico, life slows in the afternoons, with some shops and restaurants closing to escape the heat. Burrell and her roommate, hospitality management major Caitlin Gray, often used these times to explore their surroundings, study or simply do as many locals do and rest.
“The way of life there, it’s just different. It’s more relaxed,” said Burrell, who grew up in England and envisioned someday living in Merida.
The two perused open-air markets, clothing and jewelry vendors, grocers and small cafes. They explored museums, colorful side streets and the vast open square at the foot of the 16th century Catedral de San Ildefonso. At night, vendors, musicians and families descended on the square.
“It was just amazing,” Gray said. “Everyone was so friendly. I felt safer there walking down the street there than I would here. We did a lot of exploring of the city, a lot of walking.”
Along with other students, the pair also took excursions to the Mayan ruins at Uxmal about an hour south of Merida and to the elaborate Loltun cave system southeast of the city. There, visitors descend stairs to a vast chamber of jagged calcium stalactites. In one section, sunlight streams through a hole allowing trees and other flora to spring up.
“The Mayans used the cave for protection,” said Burrell, adding that visitors can still glimpse ancient pictographs of hunting scenes. “It was just incredible to see, that environment.”
Sylas Jones, a finance major with a minor in Spanish, enjoyed the caves as well but was especially impressed by the ancient Mayan city of Uxmal.
Known for its 320-foot long “Governor’s Palace” and pyramid that rises 115-foot from the jungle, Uxmal was home to 20,000 Mayans at its height. Visitors are free to wander most of the ruins. Climbing high enough, they can catch a refreshing breeze while surveying the nearby stone structures.
“I liked Uxmal better than Chichen Itza, which was more for tourists,” Jones said.
As for his language skills, “it was definitely tough in the beginning,” he said. But as his comprehension, or listening skills, improved he gained more confidence conversing with residents, shopkeepers and his hosts.
“I really enjoyed the family dinners with our group, the camaraderie, especially toward the end. It was nice to understand the whole conversation,” he said. “I will definitely go back. The city and the people are amazing.”
Prof. Jimenez concurred.
“It’s a different lifestyle, a slower-paced lifestyle,” he said. “There’s something magical about living in a place that welcomes everybody but also where you feel that time goes by slower.”