Olson and McClusky

Cultural Explorations: Wells programs in Belize and Hawaii

How’s this for an itinerary? Sample incredible cuisine, explore ancient ruins, visit museums, hear first-hand about indigenous cultures, soak up the tropical sun, and learn the hula…while gaining college credit. These are a few of the activities during Wells’ off-campus programs in Belize and Hawaii. ­

The programs, however, are the antithesis of leisurely vacations. Led by anthropology professors Ernie Olson and Laura McClusky, each program encourages students to develop ethnographic skills—the ability to develop a meaningful understanding of a culture through active participation and observation.

Students also learn to think critically about issues such as social justice, sustainable development, the role of tourism, the pressures of environmental movements, and the influence of a global economy.

“We introduce students to non-indulgent tourism,” says Olson. “That is, not exerting any negative influence, but in some way learning, growing personally, and making contributions when possible.”

The off-campus programs connect with Professor Olson and McClusky’s on-campus courses as well as their own fieldwork and research interests.

Each year, Professor Olson leads his three-credit January program in Hawaii after offering his fall course, Hawaii: Colonialism, Tourism, and Religion. A group of students from the course go on to complete the off-campus program, which takes place on three Hawaiian islands: Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island. During the program students develop a nuanced understanding of the history, religion and culture of the people of Hawaii, including native Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and Philippians. Their journey includes working in a taro patch, service learning at ethnobotanical gardens, touring archeological sites and natural wonders, and exploring Chinatown in Honolulu. “Our immersion in Hawaii is a fascinating study of East meets West,” says Olson.

In Belize, Professor McClusky leads groups of students each year on a one-week orientation program prior to their semester abroad at Belize’s Galen University. This preparation gives them a rich perspective on the country where they’ll be studying. The program begins at a local market, where the students sample a wide range of exotic foods, and it continues with a caravan across the country. As they visit Mayan ruins, meet with indigenous “Garifuna” coastal people, explore a jaguar reserve, boat through mangroves, and visit plantations and villages, the group learns about the culture and history of Belize as well as the complexities that exist at the intersection of development and preservation.

“We’re helping students understand cultural difference and global issues on a personal level,” says McClusky. “And our students can apply the perspective they gain on these trips to see the broader picture wherever they are. If they see a housing development in Belize, outside of Honolulu, or in downtown Rochester, they can recognize the influences of the global economy, global resource flows, racism, inequalities, and power.” These lessons have staying power, McClusky explains—“We’re bringing important issues to life through experience, so students are engaged and actively involved in their learning.”