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Tropical Biology in Belize (faculty-led)
Punta Gorda, Belize
Program Terms:  
This program is currently not accepting applications.
Budget Sheets Summer I
Dates / Deadlines:
There are currently no active application cycles for this program.
Fact Sheet:
 Program Type:
 Language of Instruction:
 Minimum GPA:
 Class Standing:
Undergraduate Freshman, Undergraduate Sophomore, Undergraduate Junior, Undergraduate Senior
 Number of Credits:
 Program Specialist:
Joseph Rasich
 Language experience required:
 Areas of Study:
Arts & Sciences
 Program Length:
Program Description:
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Program Overview

** This program will be ofered again in summer 2016.  Please check back for updates in fall 2015 and students may also notify Dr. Maarten Vonhof of their interest.

The course intent is expose student to the world’s most diverse ecosystems: tropical rainforests and coral reefs, and to provide experience in the design and implementation of scientific studies to understand the diversity and functioning of ecological interactions in a tropical environment. We will spend ~2 weeks in the field in Belize, Central America, with one week spent at a field station set in the largest tract of pristine rainforest in Central America, and one week at a field station on a small island off the coast of Belize situated on the finest barrier reef in the western hemisphere.  In between, to appreciate human interactions with surrounding ecosystems we travel to a Mayan village where we have a home stay with local villagers and have presentations on sustainable agriculture and chocolate production from cacao. We will also visit Mayan ruins to gain an appreciation of historical land use and the long-term influence humans have had on tropical ecosystems. While at the rainforest site, students will explore a diversity of terrestrial habitats including wet lowland and montane forest, tropical savanna, streams and rivers, and study some of the many biotic interactions unique to the tropics. There is strong emphasis on spending time in the field to observe as many of the organisms in the tropical rainforest and their interactions as possible. From the marine location, students will snorkel all day, every day in a variety of coral reef ecosystems and learn about coastal marine ecology and the biology of organisms living on coral reefs. Before leaving for Central America, participants will have several evening sessions to orient them on the ecosystems we will visit and what to expect while we are in Belize. Once in Belize, daily activities will vary and include group hikes or boat trips to observe particular habitats, time alone or in small groups to make observations on interactions among diverse organisms, and time working in defined groups to design and execute scientific field projects to test hypotheses the students have generated based on their observations. Students will give presentations on their findings while in Belize.



Belize is a small country in Central America where English is the official language. Belize's ethnically diverse population includes Mayans, Garifunas, Creoles, Hispanics of European descent, and Mestizos, all living together without much ethnic tension. There are also small groups of Mennonites who still speak an old form of German, as well as Chinese and Indians. Although Belize was "discovered" a few years ago as a tourism destination, the tourism industry is still not highly developed and one can still travel throughout Belize without enduring resorts catering to the beach crowd, except on Ambergris Caye, the largest caye (island) on the barrier reef. Considering the small land area of Belize, there is a surprising diversity of ecosystems: wetlands, savannahs, and both lowland and montane wet and dry forests, that have not been impacted by humans to the degree that natural areas have been affected in other Central American countries. The barrier reef off the coast of Belize is second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in size and diversity, and Belize’s marine ecosystems remain largely undisturbed.

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Academic Eligibility

Good academic standing.  No prerequisites are required to participate in this program and students from all majors with an interest in learning about nature are highly encouraged to apply. .

Academic Program

Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE)
- students explore a diverse range of terrestrial habitats on this inland terrestrial facility including wet lowland and montane forest, tropical savanna, streams and rivers. Participants investigate how biological as well as human factors have contributed to the development of these diverse ecosystems, as well as study some of the many biotic interactions unique to the tropics.

Tobacco Caye Marine Station - students have the opportunity to experience the finest barrier reef in the western hemisphere right off the end of the dock, a marine facility students are able to snorkel over and learn about coastal marine ecology.

Before departing for Central America, participants have several sessions to learn about specific groups of organisms and ecosystems they were likely to encounter during their travels. In Belize, daily activities focus on field excursions and group research projects to examine the functioning of natural interactions among the huge diversity of organisms we will encounter. Participants also visit ruins of the extinct Mayan civilization and see how people currently use natural resources in order to appreciate human interactions with surrounding ecosystems.

Academic Credit

WMU credit will be awarded for BIOS 4560 (3 credits) upon successful completion of the program. Students are urged to work closely with the appropriate academic advisor(s) to determine how these credits will be counted towards their degree.

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Cost & Financial Aid


The WMU program fee includes: tuition, administrative fees, instructional costs, housing, meals, international health and emergency insurance, park entrance fees, ground transportation in Belize, and excursions. The program fee will be billed to the student account for summer I semester.

The program fee does not include: airfare, exit airport tax in Belize ($40), passport, equipment, course materials, and personal expenses, including tips.  Cost of equipment (approximately $200) is included under miscellaneous expenses. Costs not included in the program fee are estimates and may vary according to individual needs and preferences. The program budget does not include activities which are not part of the academic program, such as personal travel, entertainment, shopping, etc.

Program fees are subject to adjustment due to changes in actual exchange rates or other factors. In addition, programs may be modified or cancelled in the event of insufficient enrollment. Program dates are subject to slight adjustment by the home/host university.

Note: For tax purposes, the university requires the program fee billing to be divided into qualified fees (tuition) and non-qualified fees (non-tuition costs).   The total program fee equals the study abroad commitment fee plus qualified fees and non-qualified fees added together.
   Commitment fee
+ Qualified fees (tuition)
+ Non-qualified fees (other costs)
= Total program fee

Commitment fee:  The study abroad commitment fee is billed in advance, after the student submits the commitment form.  The remainder of the program fee will be billed to the WMU student account for Summer I semester.

Students applying for this program may be eligible for the Haenicke Institute for Global Education Study Abroad Scholarship. Apply online for this scholarship.

Financial Aid
Students eligible for federal or state financial aid may use their awards for studying abroad.  After a student has been accepted to the program, they must complete required paperwork with WMU Financial Aid to apply financial aid to the program costs.  It is the student's responsibility to complete the paperwork prior to departure and to maintain compliance with financial aid regulations while studying abroad (i.e., remain enrolled full-time).  Non-WMU students must apply for financial aid through their home university.

Please note: Disbursement of financial aid may not coincide with the start date of the program abroad so plan ahead.  Some out-of-pocket costs may occur prior to financial aid disbursement for the semester, such as the commitment fee, passport, airfare, immunizations, visa or residence permit fees (if applicable).  These costs vary by program and WMU Study Abroad Specialists are available to answer questions about the program budget.

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Students will stay in bunkhouses at both BFREE and Tobacco Caye.

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Tentative itinerary for 2014

Monday, June 9: Depart from U.S. and arrive at Phillip W. Goldson International Airport in Belize.
Transport to Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE)
Tuesday, June 10:  Orientation at BFREE followed by program activities
Monday, June 16: Transfer to San Felipe
Tuesday, June 17:  Activities with Mayan families followed by afternoon transfer to Tobacco Caye Marine Station
Wednesday, June 18: Orientation at Tobacco Caye Marine Station
Monday, June 23:  Program at Tobacco Caye concludes
Tuesday, June 24 - Return to Kalamazoo

Tentative itinerary subject to change.

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Additional Resources

Faculty Director:
Dr. Maarten Vonhof
Dept. of Biological Sciences
3431 Wood Hall
Phone: (269) 387-5626

WMU Study Abroad
Joseph Rasich
Study Abroad Specialist
2510B Ellsworth Hall
Phone: (269) 387-5890

Host Institution Information (external links)

Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE)
Tobacco Caye Marine Station

Country Information (external links)
Lonely Planet - Belize
U.S. - Belize Relations
Country Specific Information - Belize
Culturegram - Belize

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This program is currently not accepting applications.