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Photo of Study Abroad students at the airport

Study Abroad Restarts with Coconut Olympics

This year, as athletes around the world train for gold medals in Tokyo, a new competition has emerged. Originating on the five-acre island of Tobacco Caye in the middle of the Belize Barrier Reef, the Coconut Olympics has left its mark on the tropics thanks to Jacksonville University and an enterprising group of students and professors.

The Coconut Olympics was a highlight of the university’s first study abroad trip since COVID-related closings all but halted international travel and learning programs. Study abroad is a rich part of higher education, affording students the unique opportunity to continue their studies while immersed in another culture.

Over the last year, however, the study abroad industry has suffered immensely, suspending in-person programs and pivoting to make these travel experiences available online to students in the wake of COVID-19. At some universities, study abroad has all but disappeared. 

But not at Jacksonville University. 

This summer, marine science professors Dr. Melinda Simmons and Dr. Jeremy Stalker took 16 students to Belize to study and experience the tropics, leading the first Jacksonville University study abroad trip since the fall of 2019. Belize is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world and is well-known for its biodiversity, making this destination perfect for field study and exploration.

Photo of Dr. Jeremy Stalker teaching on the island of Tobacco Caye, using a broom and the sand as a chalkboard
Dr. Jeremy Stalker teaching on the island of Tobacco Caye, using a broom and the sand as a chalkboard

Throughout the trip, the group stayed primarily on Tobacco Caye, isolated from other groups and rich with opportunities for investigation. Students snorkeled for lionfish and coral; explored mangroves; participated in reef and beach clean ups; visited neighboring islands; and studied large marine life such as lobsters, eagle rays, tarpon, and nurse sharks.

Photo of the results of a beach cleanup, showing many bottles and discarded shoes
The results of a beach cleanup

Graduate student Rylee Simon, whose thesis project is on juvenile green sea turtles, was especially impressed with the marine life in Belize, “What I found to be such a cool experience was going on snorkels and seeing all of the different fish and coral species that we see and talk about in class, in person and in the water,” Simon said.

Also on the island was the Smithsonian Caribbean Research Institute, which led Simmons, Stalker, and students in much of the academic programming during their stay, but study abroad isn’t all study. While being isolated on a tiny island in the middle in the Caribbean Sea provided excellent social distancing, it did have a few drawbacks, one of which was a lack of evening activities.

Enter the Coconut Olympics.

“We wanted to find things to do at night, and one night we had trivia where students competed for gummy bears and sticks of gum, and it was surprisingly really competitive,” Simmons explained. “This got us thinking – and on the island, there were a lot of coconut palms, even dropping zones. So, we designed four different events with coconuts: coconut slingshot, coconut bowling, coconut bocce, and a coconut relay. We called it the Coconut Olympics, and the students absolutely loved it!”

So did the Smithsonian Caribbean Research Institute, which plans to continue the event with future study abroad groups.

While the Belize games may not come with a state-of-the art venue, TV coverage, or medals made of actual metal – no offense to gummy bears and gum – they were nonetheless entertaining to this year’s group of students. Their trip represented a return to normal and a tiny victory in the COVID battle. It also allowed them the chance to restart the study abroad experience at Jacksonville University and to leave behind an extra special, uniquely-local contribution to Tobacco Caye in the form of the Coconut Olympics.

Photo of Island signs, one of which says, "Coconut Olympics 2021"

More information about Study Abroad at Jacksonville University can be found here.

By Jenna Blyler
Staff Writer