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Belize Field School offers new primatology class over spring break

Only a few spots remain for students interested in spending their spring break in Central America for an anthropology course at a university field school. This is the first time the class Primate Behavior and Ecology will be offered and anyone with a minimum of one semester of college experience - New Mexico State University student or not - is eligible to apply.

This course and three others will be offered this spring at the Belize Field School through NMSU's study abroad program. The departments of biology, wildlife science and entomology will be represented through other courses in addition to this anthropology course.

Belize is an English-speaking country on the Central American coast between Mexico and Guatemala. NMSU has offered classes at the field school since spring 2007. New courses are typically offered over spring or summer breaks and this spring will be the first to offer a course with a focus on primates.

Kristi Drexler, an NMSU alumna, and program director of the field school originally developed the program with NMSU Study Abroad in 2006 for implementation this year.
"I've been hoping to have a primates class since we started planning in 2006," said Drexler.

Drexler served in the Peace Corps in the late 1990's and serves as the logistics coordinator for the field school. Volunteerism is very important to Drexler, and she instills the values of volunteering in each of the courses offered at the field school by reserving a few hours during the trip for the students to take part in a community service project.

Belize has the largest intact rainforest north of the Amazon with more than 70 percent of the country under forest cover. It offers an ideal learning environment, Drexler said.

"Belize is a perfect place for natural and cultural studies. This class will specifically focus on studying an endangered species, the black howler monkey, as well as the spider monkey and where both their habitats overlap," she said.

The ten-day program runs from March 20 to March 29 with a full-itinerary of observing monkeys and other field work as well as visiting Mayan ruins, canoeing, birding and snorkeling in the Caribbean coral reef.

"Having the opportunity to go away for 10 days at the field school and earn three course credits makes it easier for those who might want to attend a field school but can't afford the cost or can't afford to take a longer period of time off," said Tara Clarke, a graduate student and teaching assistant. In addition to being an NMSU alumna and advocate for the program, she has had field experience studying lemurs in Madagascar.

Brenda Benefit, professor of anthropology at NMSU in the College of Arts and Sciences will be teaching the course with assistance from Clarke. Benefit said studying primates shows on a deeper level, what it's like to be a human.

"By studying non-human primates who must survive and reproduce in nature in the absence of language, sophisticated tools and culture, we have a chance to see how our ancestors might have survived and behaved and where some of our innate behavioral capacities might have come from," Benefit said.

The Belize Field School Program is administered through NMSU's Study Abroad Office in Garcia Annex. Paul Huntsberger, director of Study Abroad, values this type of group study program that places emphasis on the students. He has been involved with educational development in Belize for more than 20 years.

Fundraising efforts by the students and departments continue as a way to keep costs down for the students. "We want to make it an intense life-changing experience and something the students wouldn't get anywhere else. And, we want to make it affordable," Huntsberger said.

Over time, Huntsberger said the field school could expand further and incorporate other departments or areas for internship such as social work and environmental science for undergraduate and graduate students. "The place has tremendous potential for us as a university. It's one of our first adventures," he said.

For more information about the Belize Field School programs contact NMSU study abroad at (575) 646-5107 or email Drexler at kristidrex32@yahoo.com.