For many college students, traveling to Mexico conjures images of all-inclusive resorts, long days spent on a beach, and possibly some hazy Spring Break memories. But for 12 Honors students this May, it meant exploring a new city from the ground up.

“My favorite part of the trip was visiting the Mayan ruins. We went to Uxmal and got to climb up one of the pyramids, and it was one of the coolest experiences of my life,” said sophomore Jennifer Wrzala.

The Honors “City as Text” experience allows students to learn about a location through a series of pre-trip meetings in the form of an Honors Exploration, before embarking on a journey to experience the destination firsthand. The “City as Text” model uses the destination city as the textbook for the class, which provides an interdisciplinary foundation of information on the economy, politics, art, geography, education system, and psychology of Mérida and the Yucatán.

Over the course of eight days, Honors students explored areas and sights in and around the city of Mérida, the state capital of Yucatán. The students experienced a variety of activities in the city and surrounding area. From hiking through ancient Mayan ruins and visiting a biosphere reserve, interacting with other college students in Mérida, to kayaking through a tangle of mangroves, the students were immersed in the rich culture of the Yucatán.

“Being in an area where we were not all fluent in Spanish and unfamiliar with the landscape made us think differently when making decisions. You never really develop a skill like that until you are forced into a situation,” said senior Ben Colletti.

Students on the trip participated in a blend of academic and social encounters with an emphasis on Mexican culture. The group was treated to several guest lectures to provide important background and context for the sites they were going to experience in person, covering topics such as the history of Mérida, discrimination, and the archeology of the Yucatán.

These experiences also allowed them to make connections to the Dimensions of Honors Learning, enhancing their skills and allowing them to engage in different ways of processing information. “By being surrounded by other determined and focused Honors students, I was urged to think critically and to be open-minded during truly new experiences,” senior Sarah Greenberg said. “Every time we were presented with lectures on history, culture, and other topics, I had the ability to connect the information to different classes I have taken at ISU.”

Honors students enjoy food and fun as much as they do books and learning, and Mérida offered many options for both exotic food and unique fun. Mexico has a strong connection between culture and food, and learning how to prepare meals and try new foods for the first time pushed students outside of their comfort zone. The cuisine of the Yucatán has strong Mayan and even Caribbean influences, making it distinct from Americanized Mexican food.

“One thing I never thought I would do is try all the different types of food. I’m usually an extremely picky eater, so trying all different types of meat, beans, Mexican style desserts, and salsas/sauces was a whole new experience for me,” said sophomore Jennifer Wrzala.

Education occurs in unexpected places, and learning that occurs during travel differs greatly from classroom-based learning. Honors students found themselves seeking out local places on their own to learn more about the things they had learned about during the pre-trip Exploration, visiting museums and local markets to truly get to know the historic city and its inhabitants. During one excursion to a Henequen plantation, the group met with a local man who began working on the plantation when he was 13 years old. The plantation now serves as a living museum, and through his role as a storyteller for the museum, he shared his story with the students, who were treated to the experience of hearing history firsthand in a language that is several millennia old – an opportunity that may come once in a lifetime.

Rocío Rivadeneyra, director of the Honors Program, accompanied the students on the trip. As a faculty member, she enjoyed seeing firsthand the connections that students were making to the things they learned before arriving in Mérida, and their enthusiasm as they immersed themselves in the experience. “At every level, they were Honors students,” Rivadeneyra said. “They never wanted to give up an opportunity, and they wanted to experience everything they could. They were amazing travelers.”

“I have made new friends that I shared an amazing experience with, and I will definitely keep in touch with the people I met on this trip,” said senior Ben Colletti.

Every new experience is made more special by the people with which it is shared, and the Honors students who made this journey together are no exception. “Being an honors student and able to go to Mérida was a great experience,” said Jennifer Wrzala, sophomore. “The trip and online class that partners with it exhibited our learning dimensions well, and learning by experience is definitely my favorite way to learn!”

Learn more about Honors Travel opportunities.