students in the Yucatan

Students and professors in the Yucatan Semester course visited Oxkintok, a pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site.

By Roanoke College News

Students study conservation, sustainable agriculture during first Yucatan semester course

Imagine taking midterm exams in a room of windows that look out to palm trees, a slight breeze moving through your hair and a dirt floor beneath your feet.

This is the experience that eight Roanoke College students are having this semester while living and studying in Yucatan, Mexico, for the College's first semester abroad course.  

These students are studying conservation science, sustainable agriculture and food systems during this three-month class, led by Dr. Valerie Banschbach, who is chair of the Environmental Studies department. Students are traveling to many different sites in the Yucatan while they study these topics.  

"Nothing opens your mind more than being removed from your own culture," said Julia Mello '19, a student in the Yucatan course who is majoring in Environmental Studies and Sociology.

While in the Yucatan, students are staying in several cities, including Merida, where they are learning Spanish in homestays, Kaxil Kiuic, a biocultural reserve, and Oxkutzcab where they are completing archaeological research.  

The course is focused on Yucatan's environmental past and present, but it also has a service learning component.

The students have worked to help repair some infrastructure, such as fixing water containers for animals in the dry season.

"We got to set up camera traps in the jungle to capture photographs of the wildlife in the biocultural reserve, such as pumas and jaguars," Mello said.  

“Nothing opens your mind more than being removed from your own culture.”

Julia Mello '19

In another city in the Yucatan, Kaxil Kiuic, students are creating wood burning stoves for Mayan people to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Banschbach has quite a bit of past experience studying in Mexico. Along with past visits to the Yucatan, she has conducted fieldwork in Northern Mexico. While there, her work included snorkeling in blue lagoons and taking notes on male parental care behavior of the fish on an underwater clipboard. Ever since this experience, Banschbach said she has wanted to go back to Mexico to do more work.  

"The environmental future of the world will be strongly influenced by what happens in developing countries like India and Mexico," she said.

She believes that it is necessary for students to study in the field so they can see the effects of climate change.            

There are two focus areas during the Yucatan semester. One is conservation science. Students are working with a non-governmental organization devoted to wildlife conservation. During this part of the course they are studying birds and plants.

The second area is sustainable agriculture and food systems. Students are learning about traditional Mayan agriculture based on the milpa system, a crop-growing system.  

Joseph Conroy '18, who is majoring in Environmental Studies, said his favorite part of the Yucatan course has been, "the amazing food, markets, and the interactions and connections I have made with people down here. This has single handily been one of the best learning experiences I have ever had in my life."  

Banschbach said there are plans to offer the semester in the Yucatan course during future spring semesters at Roanoke.     

Stay up-to-date on all of the class' adventures on the course blog:  

Semester in the Yucatan