The phrase “a life-changing experience” is often used quite lightly. So when Dr. Filiberto Penados from the Centre for Engaged Learning Abroad (CELA), began to hear it used by students taking part in the “Indigeneity, Sustainability, and Food” program he runs in Belize, he always took it with a grain of salt. However, when it comes to this program, time has shown Penados that this has often been precisely the case.


Dr. Filiberto Penados

Dr. Filiberto Penados

Penados is an internationally recognized scholar of Indigenous studies based in Belize. He acts as the student’s guide when they visit the country to study complex and far-ranging topics through the lens of Indigenous food production.  For him, this program represents a chance to use an accessible and familiar topic to ask larger questions. 


“We want to use food as a window, as a platform for asking questions,” says Penados. “Food is such a basic thing, we engage with it with all our senses and in a way a spoonful of food contains so much about  the history and complexity for the world.  We only need to slow down to observe, become a bit critical and ask questions.  Why are eating we eating what we are eating?  Where does it come from?  Who produced it and who is preparing the food? What does it mean to the people who are eating it? How is it connected to culture? How is it connected to power?  So from here we thought we could use food to try and understand Indigenous struggles and ask questions about indigeneity.  What is the history of Indigenous food? What forces have and are shaping indigenous food systems?  How are Indigenous people reclaiming and innovating food?  How is food connected to culture and identity?  And how does this connect to questions about coloniality and decoloniality, of justice and equity, and food sustainability?”


In this experiential-learning program, ten upper-year students from Indigenous Studies, Caribbean Studies, Equity Studies and the Human Biology program spend one week in Belize living and working with Indigenous communities.  During this time, they have the opportunity to visit local farms, meet with community organizations, and to feel, taste, and smell the food that is central to the course.  As well, they get the chance to interact with people on the front line of the topics they are exploring, including Indigenous activists, scholars, and policymakers around food and health.  This ‘in the field’ type of learning allows students to explore some of the many interconnections between Indigenous people and food, and through this, examine the way modern Indigenous people are making a space for their creativity, struggles, and hope.


New College supports a number of programs which allow students to take knowledge learned in-class, and develop it in off-campus contexts. Part of the structure of this program is that participants are not chosen based solely on their academic records. Administrators want students who they feel will benefit from the experience, who will do something productive with their new knowledge, and who are often already involved in food-based community initiatives. Since these students come from various programs, each brings a different perspective that reflects the diversity of the university. According to Dr Penados, being able to bring together students of varied backgrounds is one of the most exciting parts of this program.  To him, this is the beauty of experiential learning – the realization that you cannot understand the world by studying one topic from one angle: the more perspectives, the better.


Penados recognizes that this trip is a very personal experience for students, one that often pushes them to reflect on their own identities, cultural backgrounds, and questions of privilege. As a result, students come back asking new questions about their own cultural heritage. Food and its relationship to identity become part of an examination of self-identity in ways that students could have never have foreseen. As an educator, Penados never tires of seeing students transformed by this experience, and the different angles, perspectives, and questions which accompany each new group.


Dr. Penados and speaks to students in Belize

Dr. Filiberto Penados, pictured right, with University of Toronto students during New College’s experiential learning program in Belize. 


One of the requirements of this program is that students must return to the university to speak about their experience during World Food Day celebrations in October.   This event gives students time to reflect on their time in Belize and consider what they have learned from their participation.  The multi-layered impact of this experience is evident through the student presentations, which did not simply focus on food, but also education, tourism, traditional healing, globalization, and cultural identity.   Returning to discuss their experience, serves to both keep students connected to the program, as well as to allow others to learn about this valuable experiential learning opportunity.  This year, for the first time, program alumni were invited to a reunion dinner where they could reflect on these ‘life-changing’ thoughts and experiences. By all accounts, it was an evening full of memories, laughter, and, of course, food.


World Food Day Celebrations
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New College World Food Day Celebrations where students from the 2018 Belize program presented about their experience.