Approved by a 10 -0 vote of the Scroll editorial board.
Nearly 40 students make the annual hike up the 248 steps of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, follow a machete-wielding tour guide through the jungle until the trees part to reveal the ancient civilization of Palenque and walk the grounds of several Latin American Latter-day Saint temples in April.
However, this April, students will not be led to the Pyramid of the Sun. They will not be guided through Mesoamerican ruins or walk the halls of a school in the Mayan mountains of Mexico, paintbrush in hand and ready to serve. This April, when students search for these travel opportunities through the university’s Religious Education Department, they will only be led to a disheartening “404 Error: Page Not Found.”
Spring semester 2018 will be the first semester in nearly two decades that BYU-Idaho students don’t pack their bags, brush up on their Spanish and hop a flight to Mexico City, Mexico, with three dozen other students along for the learning experience of their academic lifetime.
The Religious Education Department recently decided to indefinitely discontinue the annual Mesoamerica religion tour, along with any other tours the department hosted, including the religious European tour and Mediterranean tour.
We at Scroll believe that experience is an integral part of the education offered at BYU-I, and that if the student travel programs continue to be squelched in each department, hundreds of students will be denied the experience that cannot be gained in a classroom setting.
While the Religious Education Department may have discontinued their tour programs, that does not mean other departments should consider doing the same.
Philip Allred, a former Mediterranean tour director and chair of the Religious Education Department said after the university administration approached the department with five main concerns for the religious tours, it was decided that they would not continue. The concerns that administration brought forward included student safety, finances for the students who attend the tours and the absence of the faculty in their classes during tours.
“The administration put no pressure on us at all, but they presented these concerns, and they were satisfied with some of our suggestions on how we could address it, and they were fine if we went forward,” Allred said. “But as we reevaluated, we realized, at least for the time being, that we should focus our attention more on the classroom, more on the larger group of students who are here, and not on the really small slice of the population that could go on these.”
However, for that small slice, these tours have proven to be life-changing.
“Academically, it really allowed me to gain a different perspective to the opportunities I had in my life,” said Skylar Smoot, a junior studying construction management who embarked on the Mesoamerica tour in 2016. “One of the biggest things to me was getting to talk to the Pathway students in Mexico; they’re just so excited for the littlest opportunities for learning. My ability to learn and desire to study increased 100 fold. To me, it was just one of the most enriching experiences to experience other cultures. It allowed me to be able to relate to people in better ways.”
Another concern that led to the dismissal of the religion tours was that the classes offered through the tours were not helping students graduate.
However, these tours prove that academics are not a one-size-fits-all learning environment, and a large portion of the students who take part in them are not only on track to graduate, but they have used their experiences from the tours to do something greater.
In fact, Smoot has continued to warn of the dangers of pornography to groups of young adults in China and Nepal because of his experiences during the Mesoamerica tour.
“Hands down, I wouldn’t have gone to China if I didn’t do the Mesoamerica tour,” Smoot said. “Traveling to another country seems like a little bit of a fantasy; but Mesoamerica was a good stepping stone for the rest of my life, honestly. So once I was able to do that with a guided tour and a professor involved, it gave me the confidence that things like this are incredibly possible.”
These tours provide a cost-efficient way to both connect with fellow BYU-Idaho students and form lifelong bonds with knowledgeable professors as the travel and experiences pave the way through hands-on learning environments to reach the school’s ultimate goal of Christlike discipleship.
Terminating these tours hinders the experiential learning of hundreds of future students hoping to pave their own way down the path of discipleship through the same method.
The BYU Kennedy Center offers ample traveling opportunities, however, it is not nearly as wallet-friendly, as their trip fees can increase the cost of a similar trip anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, not including the airfare. A similar trip without the subsidized cost that BYU-I offers would cost just over twice as much. A majority of the university tour fees cover airfare, accommodation, transportation, many activities and almost all of the food.
While I’m sure the university and each department will continue to offer a phenomenal education at a low price for thousands of students through multiple academic outlets, no price tag can truly equate to the experience of a month spent studying a subject in its field abroad. As a school that represents an international student body and a worldwide church, I believe that the university and its departments should continue to send its students abroad rather than pushing for reasons to confine them solely to the classrooms of Rexburg, Idaho.
“What’s right for each individual is different, but personally, if I have a regret from my undergraduate career, it’s that I didn’t seize any opportunities like that, that I was in too much of a rush to complete the coursework,” said B. J. Rowe, a former Mesoamerica tour director and a religion teacher on campus. “I think it’s possible to go through the college experience and never get an education, never learn the things that you really should learn, and I do think the study abroad experiences enhance that. I think the possibility of having an incredible academic and discipleship enhancing experience is there.”
Both Rowe and Allred said although the Religious Education Department has stopped the tours, they hope other departments continue to offer student travel.
“In no way did we want any department to look at us and say ‘Oh great, religion pulled out, and we’re going to have to pull out,” Allred said. “That was a great concern of ours, I would be very disappointed if they ‘closed shop.’”
We urge each department offering student tours to continue to offer them, and we ask the Religious Education Department to perhaps reconsider and continue to offer tours again in the future because these experiences are truly life-changing.
A large part of why I advocate for the school’s amazing education to incoming freshman is because of the irreplaceable international education I gained abroad through three tours that have since been discontinued. Many students cannot imagine their lives without the experiences they gained through the university tours and so many more shouldn’t have to.