Alumni CLASnotes Spring 2009
In This Issue:

An Exchange of Cultures

"I thought the program was beyond astounding. Not only did we experience learning in a Mexican University where we could interact with local students, but we also got to explore the city in our afternoons and familiarize ourselves with the bus systems (a major mode of transport) and normal activities of the locals. On the weekends we went on excursions to other areas in almost every direction away from the city of Merida. The program allowed us to take advantage of every moment of our trip. I can't think of a better way it could have been planned."

-- Meagan Kovacs
2009 UF in Merida Program Participant & Lombardi Scholar
Neurobiological Sciences Major, Music Theory Minor


Each year, a group of about 25 students study at one of the oldest universities in Mexico through the UF in Merida program during Summer B -- late June through early August.

However, the relationship goes much farther than just a study abroad program.

Twenty-five years ago, the University of Florida and the Universidades Autonoma de Yucatan (UADY) signed an agreement that has greatly benefited both universities.

What began as a relationship between the anthropology departments now encompasses many other fields including: education, medicine, dentistry, animal husbandry, and veterinary medicine.

As a result of this agreement, UF and UADY have been awarded collaborative grants, such as the McArthur grant. Under this grant, the Center for Latin American Studies developed a Master of Arts program in development studies in Latin America and Africa. UADY is the partner institution in Latin America under a 25-year agreement.

"These 25 years of cooperation have served the students and teachers, enriched their knowledge, and broadened their vision, but above all, found friends and partners," said UADY Director Alfredo Dajer Abimerhi in a news release.

Allan Burns, UF professor of anthropology and chair of the Department of Anthropology, is credited with being a driving force in establishing this relationship.

"Burns is a professional who is committed to the Mayan culture and who has persuaded more than 1,000 students to stay in UADY," Abimerhi said.

The original agreement was signed in 1984 by Salvador Rodriguez Losa, director of UADY School of Anthropological Sciences; Alicia Gonzalez G. Canton, director of UADY's Language Center; and Allan Burns, chair of UF's Department of Anthropology.

Since that original agreement, Burns has carried out research and developed student exchange programs not only in Mexico, but also in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize.

Allan Burns & Students

Allan Burns with the students of the UF in Merida program visit a Mayan archeological site in the Yucatan.

"I remember the first group of students very well," said Burns. "One day during the program, I saw their picture in the Merida newspaper. They were outside of the U.S. consulate protesting U.S. military involvement in Central America!"

According to Burns, about half the students that go to UADY on the UF in Merida program study anthropology or environmental studies and about one-third are incoming Lombardi Scholars. Part of the Lombardi Scholars Program is summer-enrichment programs.

Burns' interest in Mexican culture began when he was young. He grew up in Chicago in a Mexican immigrant community. As a graduate student, he spent several years of his fieldwork among the Mayan people in Mexico on a Fulbright Hays fellowship.

"The friends I made there are still among the closest I've had in my life," he said.

He lived in a Mayan community for two years while learning the contemporary language. He has lived in communities and cities all over the Yucatan including, Señor, Quintana Roo, Ticul, and Merida.

"I can't think of anything I don't like about the Yucatan," he said. "It is quite hot during the summer, but like Yucatecan people jokingly say, 'the climate is wonderful if you don't think about the heat!'"

Burns and the students who have been immersed in the Yucatan culture have been impressed with the people and families of the Yucatan.

"What I like most is the openness and friendship of the people there, and their spirit of creativity and innovation," Burns said.

Students of the UF in Merida program are housed with host families in the region.

"The students in the program are always surprised and impressed at the lengths to which the families go to make them comfortable in their homes and to go out of their way to take them to family events such as trips to the beach, family parties, (and) events in the city," he said.

Some students regularly e-mail Burns about how their lives have changed as a result of the program.

"About six or seven students have found Yucatan so interesting, that they have married people they met while in Mexico," Burns said.

The benefits of the program go both ways, enriching the experience of both the students and teachers.

Educator Alicia Peon Arceo, a native of Merida, Mexico, gave several lectures for the program on the history of the Yucatan and ethnography of the Mayan area.

"Burns' enthusiasm for UF and love for the program and Mexico inspired me to be part of the UF-UADY relationship," Arceo said. "During the program, he not only constantly shares all his knowledge on Mexico and the Yucatan, but also his enthusiasm and good humor."

As a teacher, she was able to see how both UF and UADY students benefited from the partnership.

"The program opens a new window in their lives since they have to experience a new culture day to night," Arceo said. "(And) since I am from the Yucatan, my interaction with UF students helped me to have a better understanding of U.S. culture and student life."

Aside from student experiences, both universities have collaborated on science research. For example, Mark Brenner of UF was a lead author on an article showing the collapse of classic Mayan society was brought about by a 200-year drought in the Yucatan peninsula. In addition, Professor Guillermo de Anda of UADY, has done work that is reshaping archeological knowledge of the ancient Maya with his discoveries of structures in underground rivers and lakes.

And, all of this has been done through collaborations between the universities.

Abimerhi, UADY director, said, "I have no doubt that the collaboration agreement with the University of Florida is one of the most successful and dynamic, with beneficial results for sciences and education."

-- Aubrey Siegel

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