Service Learning Inspires Ole Miss Graduates to Begin Teaching Careers in Belize

Belizean students complete geometry activities during an academic enrichment exercise at the Lion'€™s Club building in San Pedro.

OXFORD, Miss. – What began as a week of service learning in Belize has turned into a career-starting event for two recent education graduates at the University of Mississippi.

Claire Kennedy and Alexandra Phares, both of whom received master’s degrees in education in May, recently moved to Belize, where they will lead classrooms at the Island Academy in San Pedro.

“We both decided we wanted to leave our comfort zones after graduation,” said Phares, a Pass Christian native. “The teachers don’t have the comforts that we have; they have to be resourceful.”

Ali Phares was so inspired by her students in San Mateo last spring that she decided to return and teach third grade there this fall.

As part of a service-learning course last spring, both women spent a week in the country providing academic enrichment to children at the Lion’s Club building in San Pedro and the Holy Cross Anglican Primary School in San Mateo, a poverty-stricken community literally built atop a contaminated lagoon. Ole Miss students from a variety of departments have volunteered in the community since 2008.

Phares and Kennedy were taken aback by the challenges and resourcefulness of teachers at the Anglican school, including how they pulled lessons together without traditional textbooks, worksheets and teaching tools. They were shocked but inspired.

“I’d never thought about moving away from Mississippi before this experience,” said Kennedy, a West Point native. “I fell in love with the community and the people, and decided that I wanted to be a part of it. Everyone takes care of each other and helps each other with daily life and daily obstacles. In the particular school we worked in for this project, we were faced with dealing with the emotional effects of poverty on the students in the classroom.

“In just a week’s time, I felt connected to these students and didn’t want to leave.”

Claire Kennedy, at the time a University of Mississippi senior, works with Belizean students at Holy Cross Anglican Primary School in San Mateo last spring.

While Phares and Kennedy cannot teach in the public Belizean school system because they are not citizens, the women can hold teaching positions in the private San Pedro academy. Phares will teach Standard One, which is equivalent to third grade in the United States. Kennedy will teach Standard Six, which is the equivalent to eighth grade and is the highest grade many Belizeans complete.

“For a lot of the children, getting into high school is a big goal,” said Debby Chessin, associate professor of teacher education and the faculty member who supervised the education students’ trip. “In Belize, you have to find a sponsor to put you through high school. There are significant cultural differences when it comes to education. This will be a great experience for Ali and Claire. I’m thrilled service learning has had such an impact on them.”

All students from Chessin’s class completed reflective essays upon returning to Ole Miss. Kennedy and Phares both expressed frustration about the lack of resources and compassion for individual students.

“I still do not understand all of the situations I witnessed, but I am thankful I was able to learn and spend with the children and the community,” said Phares. “I never imagined how much I could learn and experience in the small amount of time. Nor did I ever imagine the love I would have for the island and the community when I left. I can honestly say this class and trip has impacted my life in more ways than I can begin to describe.”

The UM School of Education will send another group of service learning students to Belize next spring.

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