An Exchange of Cultures
"I thought the program was beyond
astounding. Not only did we experience learning in a Mexican University
where we could interact with local students, but we also got to explore
the city in our afternoons and familiarize ourselves with the bus systems
(a major mode of transport) and normal activities of the locals. On the
weekends we went on excursions to other areas in almost every direction
away from the city of Merida. The program allowed us to take advantage
of every moment of our trip. I can't think of a better way it could have
-- Meagan Kovacs
2009 UF in Merida Program Participant & Lombardi Scholar
Neurobiological Sciences Major, Music Theory Minor
Each year, a group of about 25 students study at one of the oldest
universities in Mexico through the UF in Merida program during Summer B --
late June through early August.
However, the relationship goes much farther than just a study abroad
Twenty-five years ago, the University of Florida and the Universidades
Autonoma de Yucatan (UADY) signed an agreement that has greatly benefited
What began as a relationship between the anthropology departments now
encompasses many other fields including: education, medicine, dentistry,
animal husbandry, and veterinary medicine.
As a result of this agreement, UF and UADY have been awarded collaborative
grants, such as the McArthur grant. Under this grant, the Center for
Latin American Studies developed a Master of Arts program in development
studies in Latin America and Africa. UADY is the partner institution
in Latin America under a 25-year agreement.
"These 25 years of cooperation have served the students and teachers,
enriched their knowledge, and broadened their vision, but above all,
found friends and partners," said UADY Director Alfredo Dajer Abimerhi
in a news release.
Allan Burns, UF professor of anthropology and chair of the Department
of Anthropology, is credited with being a driving force in establishing
"Burns is a professional who is committed to the Mayan culture and who
has persuaded more than 1,000 students to stay in UADY," Abimerhi said.
The original agreement was signed in 1984 by Salvador Rodriguez Losa,
director of UADY School of Anthropological Sciences; Alicia Gonzalez
G. Canton, director of UADY's Language Center; and Allan Burns, chair
of UF's Department of Anthropology.
Since that original agreement, Burns has carried out research and developed
student exchange programs not only in Mexico, but also in Guatemala,
Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize.
Allan Burns with the students of the UF in Merida program visit a Mayan
archeological site in the Yucatan.
"I remember the first group of students very well," said Burns. "One
day during the program, I saw their picture in the Merida newspaper.
They were outside of the U.S. consulate protesting U.S. military involvement
in Central America!"
According to Burns, about half the students that go to UADY on the UF
in Merida program study anthropology or environmental studies and about
one-third are incoming Lombardi Scholars. Part of the Lombardi Scholars
Program is summer-enrichment programs.
Burns' interest in Mexican culture began when he was young. He grew
up in Chicago in a Mexican immigrant community. As a graduate student,
he spent several years of his fieldwork among the Mayan people in Mexico
on a Fulbright Hays fellowship.
"The friends I made there are still among the closest I've had in my
life," he said.
He lived in a Mayan community for two years while learning the contemporary
language. He has lived in communities and cities all over the Yucatan
including, Señor, Quintana Roo, Ticul, and Merida.
"I can't think of anything I don't like about the Yucatan," he said. "It
is quite hot during the summer, but like Yucatecan people jokingly say,
'the climate is wonderful if you don't think about the heat!'"
Burns and the students who have been immersed in the Yucatan culture
have been impressed with the people and families of the Yucatan.
"What I like most is the openness and friendship of the people there,
and their spirit of creativity and innovation," Burns said.
Students of the UF in Merida program are housed with host families in
"The students in the program are always surprised and impressed at the
lengths to which the families go to make them comfortable in their homes
and to go out of their way to take them to family events such as trips
to the beach, family parties, (and) events in the city," he said.
Some students regularly e-mail Burns about how their lives have changed
as a result of the program.
"About six or seven students have found Yucatan so interesting, that
they have married people they met while in Mexico," Burns said.
The benefits of the program go both ways, enriching the experience of
both the students and teachers.
Educator Alicia Peon Arceo, a native of Merida, Mexico, gave several
lectures for the program on the history of the Yucatan and ethnography
of the Mayan area.
"Burns' enthusiasm for UF and love for the program and Mexico inspired
me to be part of the UF-UADY relationship," Arceo said. "During the program,
he not only constantly shares all his knowledge on Mexico and the Yucatan,
but also his enthusiasm and good humor."
As a teacher, she was able to see how both UF and UADY students benefited
from the partnership.
"The program opens a new window in their lives since they have to experience
a new culture day to night," Arceo said. "(And) since I am from the Yucatan,
my interaction with UF students helped me to have a better understanding
of U.S. culture and student life."
Aside from student experiences, both universities have collaborated
on science research. For example, Mark Brenner of UF was a lead author
on an article showing the collapse of classic Mayan society was brought
about by a 200-year drought in the Yucatan peninsula. In addition, Professor
Guillermo de Anda of UADY, has done work that is reshaping archeological
knowledge of the ancient Maya with his discoveries of structures in underground
rivers and lakes.
And, all of this has been done through collaborations between the universities.
Abimerhi, UADY director, said, "I have no doubt that the collaboration
agreement with the University of Florida is one of the most successful
and dynamic, with beneficial results for sciences and education."
-- Aubrey Siegel
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