When Jennifer Shaffer registered for classes at the end of last semester, she had already made her spring break plans; she knew she would not be spending her spring break in Missouri, enduring the extreme weather changes.

At 4 a.m. on March 11, Shaffer said goodbye to her friends and family and met the bus in the parking lot at Western, which would take her to her ultimate spring break. She soon boarded a plane in Kansas City and headed for the tropical island of Belize.

And in the tropical paradise, students spent an ample amount of time swimming and snorkeling. Students who were dive-certified had three opportunities to join in on dives, including the first dive at Cypress Tunnels and another during the evening at Hol Chan Marine Preserve. Many in the group had underwater cameras to capture the memorable experience during these dives. Shaffer said that this was her first ocean scuba dive.

“It’s hard to describe,â€Â Shaffer said. “It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It was so amazing. I held a shark and saw an eel. (The eel) was behind me. I felt a tug on my vest. My dive master pointed it out to me. It was the most surreal experience ever.â€Â Shaffer said that later her dive master told her that the shark might have bitten her if it felt threatened by her turning around really fast.

On her first journey outside the U.S., Shaffer traveled with 11 fellow students, two alumni and three Western faculty classmates enrolled in biology professor David Ashley’s BIO 220 class: Field Natural History of Belize. Students are required to participate in lectures and also give their own presentations on the natural history of the country. In addition to course fees, students are responsible for the additional fee of $1750 to cover travel arrangements.

Once in Belize, the exchange rate of 2-to-1 was really on the side of the American students. “I felt like I was shopping at the half-priced store the whole time,â€Â Shaffer said. “I brought so much stuff back. I ended up checking two bags coming back.â€Â

Students also enjoyed tubing down a waterfall, but some only tubed down half the waterfall, as it was a long way back to the top.

“I went all the way down,â€Â senior Michelle Scherder said. “It was 291 steps back to the top.â€Â

They visited the Mayan Ruins, which also had many steps to climb to get to the top.

“I pretty much fell in love with the Mayan ruins,â€Â senior Nicole Shiflett said.

During the early morning hours when most students were still sleeping, Ashley was able to get some photos of unique birds in Belize.

The students traveled to a butterfly farm and canoed through a cave. Each student had a responsibility going through the cave.

At one point in the trip, the students crossed over the same river they tubed down in order to get to the ruins. Their vehicle had to be hand cranked on a platform to get across.

“It was 70 cranks; I counted,â€Â Western alumni William Gilbert said. “To think they do that 90 times a day is unbelievable.”

Shaffer is looking forward to April 23 when she can share her experiences, along with those of her classmates, with the public at a show-and-tell night. “You were there and you saw the same things, but you didn’t know what they were feeling,â€Â Shaffer said.

Shaffer said that the class was paired off into groups prior to the trip and assigned days to report about.

“Each group had a day to document,â€Â Shaffer said. “We wrote down things that were said that day, what the classmates were feeling – it was neat.â€Â

The class returned from their trip to Belize on March 19, and Ashley was already thinking about the next trip.

“On the flight back, I was trying to tell myself to never do this again, and at the same time, I was thinking through the next one,â€Â he said.

Ashley, who follows a three-year trip cycle, alternating locations, said that he would like to plan the next trip for next year.

“There is a camaraderie that develops among the crowd,â€Â said Ashley, who has been taking trips with students for the past 11 years. “It’s always very close. Whenever you have intense interaction between faculty and students outside the typical classroom setting, it ends up being positive.â€Â

Shaffer agreed and said that the trip was much more than what she thought it would be.

“The trip has changed us,â€Â Shaffer said. “I will miss the group; we got really close.â€Â Shaffer said that before the trip, she had a good idea of what she wanted to major in at Western. “I had been looking into marine biology all the time,â€Â she said. “(This trip) was going to make or break my goals.â€Â

She said that going there and having the experience that she did concreted her decision. Shaffer encourages other students interested in participating in a Study Away course to do it if it as all possible.

“Do anything you can to go,â€Â she said. “It was life changing for me, as I had never been out of the county before. The culture was intense. I’d always dreamed of going somewhere like that – not using cars, no traffic – never thought I’d get to do it. Now I have the travel bug, and I am eager to go again.â€Â

*Accompanying this article is a Flash slideshow.

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