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  Lizard watching, snorkeling, crab hunting and digging: Avila students study in the Bahamas    
  Kansas City, MO    
July 16, 2009

This May, Avila students traveled to San Salvador, Bahamas to study the culture and nature of the island. Armed with sunscreen and bug spray, the students spent eight days collecting data, enjoying the beach, chasing animals and learning to appreciate another culture.

Taking part in the course were 29 Avila students from 17 different degree programs. These students, from 20 different hometowns, came together for the chance to study internationally at the Gerace Research Centre on the island of San Salvador.

Led by Avila Professor of Biology Robert Powell, Ph.D. and Professor of Sociology David Wissmann, Ph.D., the students were required to collect data for two projects – one centered on terrestrial life and one focused on marine life. Along with their projects, the students attended class and took part in cultural activities.

While in San Salvador, the Avila students visited the Church of the God of Prophecy for Sunday service, with some students attending church for the first time. Lively music and inspirational messages touched many of the students. The whole congregation also gave birthday girl, junior Samantha Soubane, of Lenexa, Kan., a special birthday song and hugs.

“The Prophecy Church gave me an enlightening experience,” said senior Sean Wattenbarger, of Kansas City. “We were given the most excellent, soul-filled blessing. The man poured his soul into our lives with tears and pure heart. I have to say it brought tears to my eyes.”

The class made sure to visit the “big” town of Cockburn, consisting of three buildings. Even with limited shopping, the students still managed to bring home souvenirs including purses, t-shirts, dresses and more. During their trip into town, the class also stopped at the Christopher Columbus memorial.

“The students and I visited “downtown" Cockburn,” Wissmann joked. “This included one tourist shop, a small market and a stand where a woman was making purses and baskets from palm leaves. Finally, the group stopped at the Columbus monument – where most scholars have concluded was the first landing of European explorers in the New World.”

In their free evening time, students chased the nocturnal wildlife, enjoyed the beach by making a bonfire and were invited to a local fish fry. Students enjoyed eating fried conch and dancing to the island music.

“On Saturday we went to a fish fry,” said freshman Erin Schultz, of Omaha, Neb. “It was such an awesome experience. It was right off the beach, and we had a pier we could eat our conch fritters on. They were delicious, and we got six for a dollar – that's a better deal than McDonald’s dollar menu! We got to dance the night away with our friends and islanders.”

Taking part in a unique San Salvador experience, the students worked on an archeological dig with Jeffrey Blick, Ph.D., of Georgia College and State University. Along with four of Blick’s students, Avila’s students sifted through dirt, looking for a glimpse into history.

“Our students visited the Lucyann archaeological site with students from Georgia,” Wissmann said. “This site is dated at 950 AD and was the home of the native people of the Bahamas. We found literally hundreds of artifacts from the dig. These included pieces of conch, vertebrae from turtles and fish, charcoal remains and pieces of pottery.”
When not on rotation at the dig site, students went on a boat ride that took them to snorkel at an offshore reef, two bird nesting islands and Green Cay, home of most of the world’s population of San Salvador Iguanas. Powell, resident lizard expert, was in his element.

“This is a highly endangered species of Rock Iguana, a group of species found only in the West Indies,” Powell said. “I had not seen this species except in photos, so I enjoyed it – even if the iguanas have become habituated to humans who feed them. That's against the law, since it constitutes ‘harassment’ of a protected species. We obeyed the law, even if the iguanas seemed disappointed.”

Although the students enjoyed the culture of the island, their primary focus on the trip was completing their two research projects. The class was divided into five teams with each team completing one marine and one terrestrial project. The groups collected data while in the Bahamas and presented one project to the class while there. Their projects will manifest into a full research paper to be completed this summer. Projects presented in the Bahamas included size and location of cushion starfish, evading strategies of anoles, number of land crabs during different times of day, groupings of ground doves and behaviors of anoles. Research paper projects include gecko behavior, biodiversity of tide pools, biodiversity on natural and artificial environments and number and location of damselfish and fan corals.

“My group (Beth, Jania, and Casey) set up our marine project comparing natural and artificial settings in the reef, about 20-30 m off the shore at low tide,” said junior Jen Lee, of Eureka, Kan. “It was a lot of work to get started because we needed to mark four different 2x2 m areas with string and rocks to hold down the corners on the ocean floor. All the work was worth it though because it was simple to observe and count the specimens. The only way to record all the numbers while in the water was to use a ‘No Trespassing’ sign and a wax pencil.”

“In my group, we researched fan coral and their dispersal in the fringe reef,” said junior Crystal Stanzel, of Leawood, Kan. “At night we started our terrestrial project on crabs to see when they are the most active.”

Students said that the experience was extraordinary, but what made the trip even more exciting was that family and friends back home could follow the students on their journey. Avila created a website just for the course – complete with daily uploaded photos and real-time blogs from each student. You can still view the website at

As students walked off the plane at KCI, they were filled with a mixture of relief to be home and sadness for leaving such a beautiful island. Students who had not known one another previous to the trip exchanged phone numbers and good-bye hugs, knowing they will see each other in the fall.

“Being on this wonderful trip gave me a lot that I cannot express or imagine,” said junior Meshal (Mike) Algoblan of Saudi Arabia. “I made plenty of friends, met people from different cultures and enjoyed doing the two projects with my team. I felt San Salvador was my home and my family for the week. I would like to express my great appreciation and thanks to Dr. Wissmann and Dr. Powell for giving us such a great cultural and nature experience that I’ve never had. To all my amazing classmates, whom I’m pretty sure enjoyed the experience as much as I did, I’m looking forward for another experience like this next year.”


Avila University is a private, co-educational, values-based liberal arts institution founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, offering undergraduate, graduate, and adult degree programs. Avila University is located at 119th and Wornall Rd in southwest suburban Kansas City, Mo.