Welcome to the Jungle: A look inside Santa Monica College's Latin America Study Abroad Program

Most Angelinos are familiar with only one kind of jungle: the urban jungle full of concrete, cars and cellphones. The constant sound of car horns and engines boom as you walk down the street. As a college student, one tends to be locked into this man-made world that seems to have no escape.

However, there may be.

Envision a land of fresh air untainted by smog. A place covered green for miles and miles, stretching so far that the eye can only see dense tropical forest. As you wander through the jungle, the sound of wildlife hums through the trees to your ears as a bead of sweat falls from your forehead. It’s true adventure, something one can only imagine living in the middle of a city.

But this is no far-fetched fantasy. It's a reality for many Santa Monica College students who participate in SMC’s Latin America Education Program.

This summer Dr. Brandon Lewis, archeology professor, and Dr. Alexandra Tower, botany professor, are taking bold students to Belize and Guatemala on a three-week study-abroad trip. Being an interactive program, students will explore Ancient Mayan ruins, the heart of the southern Maya Mountains, the Great Barrier Reef of Belize and many other locations. Much more than a visit to a foreign country, this program is a journey into an enigmatic world known to a select few.

For Lewis, Latin America isn't such a mystery because he is a frequent visitor of the region. It has a special place in his heart and sparks within him an incredible passion. To share his passion with SMC students is one of his greatest joys.

“The lives of many of my students change during this trip,” Lewis said. “Afterwards, I speak to them and almost all of them say that it’s one of the most meaningful trips they’ve ever taken. I’m so proud of the students.”

As one of the nation’s foremost Mayan archeologists, Lewis takes students to some of the most famous Mayan archeology sites. These include La Milpa, Lamanai, Xunantunich and the Actun Tunichil Mucnal Cave. The most impressive is Tikal, considered the mecca of all Mayan archeological sites.

In addition to this, students will hike through the jungle and learn about the rainforest ecology from Tower, who is a distinguished tropical biologist. Students will also learn about marine ecology while they snorkel in the Great Barrier Reef. All of this and more is planned so that students can get a comprehensive look at Latin America.

This broad examination of the territory also includes meaningful interaction with local peoples. Participants visit the Octavia Waight Elderly Clinic, a senior care facility in Belize which takes in elderly people who are living on the streets. As Lewis began to talk about this, his tone suddenly altered. He spoke slowly and softly and recollected an emotive story.

Last year, Lewis found himself at Octavia Waight with nervous students. As western visitors, students are unfamiliar with the plight of the elderly in Latin America. The foreign setting, language and people are often beyond the comfort zone of many students. But during the 2015 trip last summer, like every other before, students were able to connect with the locals on a deeply personal level.

As a part of the visit, students play bingo with the elderly and they play until everyone wins. But on this visit, while everyone else had already won, one saddened resident just wasn’t winning. Her name was Christel.

Partially deaf and blind, Christel was struggling to play the game. Realizing this, Lewis, who was calling out numbers, mouthed to the student helping Christel, “What number?” The student mouthed back the last number she needed to win. Lewis then loudly announced her winning number.

Not being able to hear him, Christel didn’t know she won. The student gently rested her hands on her shoulders and said, “Christel, Christel! You won!” Upon hearing this, Christel began to cry.

As she sat there, sobbing from immense joy, the students and Lewis were struck by the beauty of this moment. Lewis believes that this was perhaps one of the few happy moments in the last 15 years of Christel’s life. Touched by this, Lewis and the students began to cry.

Three days later Christel passed away.

“We gave Christel the last moment of joy she ever had,” Lewis said in a delicate voice. “To the extent that we can, we want to give back. We want to thank the people of Belize.” He paused for a moment then said, “It’s a powerful experience and this is going to be part of it.”

Lewis leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his coffee. He suddenly became upbeat again and said, “We are so committed to having SMC change your life that we will actually try to fund a significant portion of the overall expense so that you can experience this."

He was referring to the Global Citizenship Scholarship which covers $500 to $1,000 of the $2,800 cost of the trip. Even better, many students qualify for this award. This means for numerous students, joining this program is feasible.

The Latin America Education Program has been recognized for changing students’ lives. It could be the hike through the rainforest, the exploration of Mayan ruins or the witnessing of unique wildlife. Or maybe, it’s the time spent at Octavia Waight and the moments shared with people like Christel.

The application deadline was recently extended to May 13, giving newly interested students an opportunity to apply. The program is open to all SMC students. To apply online, go to SMC’s official website and visit the Study Abroad Program’s page.

Perchance, your life could be changed too. But be forewarned, the program is not for the faint of heart — it’s for those full of heart.