For a week in December, Kerri Sossong of McHenry could wake up and look outside to see a mountain range in the shape of a giant sleeping man.
She was part of a 10-person group — eight students and two directors — that spent six days during mid-December in Belize in Central America. They stayed at the Sleeping Giant Rainforest Lodge in Belmopan, the capital of Belize, as part of the first international studies course offered by McHenry County College.
"I didn't know what to expect having never left the country before," Sossong said. "This trip completely exceeded any expectations I ever had."
The course, Temples and Tropical Forests: Field studies in Belize, began in October with an eight-week online introduction to anthropology, tropical ecology and conservation, said biology instructor Bev Dow, one of the two trip directors.
While MCC students have had other international study opportunities, Dow said this was the first time the college housed the entire program on its own.
The three-credit course requires students to have completed at least 12 college credit hours, be 18 by the time the trip starts, and to have a minimum GPA of 2.75.
"This was an opportunity for students to go on a trip that was fairly low-cost and extremely short-term," the instructor said. "So they could have an international experience without committing to being gone for a whole semester or all summer."
Still, the group managed to fit plenty of activity into their six days.
The eight students now can thumb through a whole host of experiences they wouldn't have otherwise had, such as hearing howler monkeys at a zoo for injured and orphaned Belizean animals; exploring the jungle pointing out medicinal plants they read about before the trip; and visiting an organic cacao plantation, in the process gaining a certain appreciation for chocolate.
"We went on a cave hike," Sossong added, picking out one of her many Belizean highlights. "While we were going through there were some artifacts from the ancient Mayan civilization, like there were some old ceremonial pots. It was cool to experience that kind of history."
The concept of bringing textbook to tangible was one goal of the course, Dow said, and so was exposing students to cultural differences. One of the "most impactful" afternoons was spent diving into conversation with lodge staff, all native to the area, learning about an entirely different way of life.
Dow recalled a local's astonishment in hearing how Americans flushed the toilet with water pure enough to drink.
"It's that kind of thing that can really open their eyes," she said. "I think going to another place in the world just really broadens a student's mind."
Considering reactions and enthusiasm from the students, Dow dubbed the trip a success, adding the plan is to offer the fall course on an annual basis.
For Sossong, whose experience served as the first dose of international exposure, one trip won't be enough. After this, her last semester at MCC, she's decided to try to travel as much as possible.
"It was one of the most amazing things I've been able to experience," she said. "Now, I'm working on an application for a study abroad program in Costa Rica for this summer."