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Isla Mujeres Ethnographic Field School Summer 2013
Isla Mujeres Ethnographic Field School Summer 2014
Isla Mujeres Ethnographic Field School

The Isla Mujeres Ethnographic Field School is an amazing opportunity to learn principles of anthropology and ethnographic methods in a real-world setting.  Both in the classroom, and in the process of actively and passively adjusting to a new culture, you will be in a state of constant learning - both about the world, and about yourself - while on Isla.


I most enjoyed the highly discussion-based nature of the class meetings. The readings and lectures are an excellent resource for students at all stages in their anthropology education—providing a thorough overview of the main historical thinkers who shaped the discipline, while also focusing on the current state of anthropology in the contemporary world. 


The freedom to design and address your own research question is hugely empowering as a student.  While there is by no means a shortage of options to consider when selecting a field school, the Isla Mujeres Ethnographic field school is unique for the way in which you will be afforded the opportunity to live out dreams which many people save for their bucket list. In my time as a student on Isla, I learned to scuba dive.  I swam with whale sharks.  I learned enough Spanish to hold conversations with locals.  I zip-lined over jungle canopies.  I rafted through underground river systems.  I explored thousand-year-old Mayan ruins.  And I did all this in a way which was relevant to my research, deepened my appreciation for Mexican culture, and furthered my development as an anthropologist. 


Isla Mujeres is undeniably safe, and the residents of the island are overwhelmingly warm, friendly, and accommodating.  Everybody has a story, and everybody wants to learn yours. Even in your short time on the island, you will make incredible friendships, both with the people of Isla, and with tourists visiting from all over the world.  


My experience with the Isla Mujeres Ethnographic Field School was highly positive.  If you are an undergraduate student just beginning your exposure to anthropology as a discipline, the opportunities to learn new things years ahead of your peers back home are numerous. Likewise, if you are further along in your studies, the benefit of the opportunity to design your own research project cannot be overstated.  


When your time on Isla comes to an end, and you are boarding your flight back home, you might find yourself unable to shake the feeling that you’ve forgotten something back in your room at Poc Na.  It may take you weeks or even months after leaving, but eventually you will realize—you left behind part of yourself on that tiny Island off the Yucatan Peninsula.  That piece of you may be large or it may be small, but in any case it will call out to you as loudly as it can for the rest of your life, beckoning you back.  


My time on Isla was too short, but the memories and friendships I made are very strong.  I know I’ll be back someday, and hopefully I’ll see you there too.  Look for me at Fenix.  I’ll be standing in the shallows, talking with old friends and sipping a habanero mojito.

-- Matt, 2013



This summer I was fortunate enough to spend three months on Isla Mujeres studying studying teen pregnancy because Isla Mujeres has one of the highest rates in the country. Through intense coursework and ethnographic assignments that were meant to enhance my skills as an applied anthropologist working in the field, I grew into my role as a researcher.  


On the island I conducted several interviews (in Spanish, of course) and built rapport with existing institutions including the Red Cross and non-profits like DIF and Brazos Abiertos who work with issues like teen pregnancy, sex education, and STI prevention.  The mayor himself requested that teen pregnancy be researched on the island simply because of its abundance.  This political backing helped us form connections with figures influential in the public health sector, including the Minister of Public Health, who aided our efforts to explore the issue of teen pregnancy. 


In addition to the research I conducted and the Ethnographic classes I was attending I also continued my Spanish learning with intensive Spanish classes and enjoyed some of the perks of being on a tropical island.  Part of the program was to become PADI Open Water Scuba certified in order to challenge oneself physically as well as mentally in a foreign aquatic environment to parallel the challenges we were facing living in a foreign terrestrial environment.  That experience led me to see some beautiful and possibly transient underwater sites. We were also able to snorkel with whale sharks and manta rays that migrate through, feed, and nurse in waters near the Yucatan peninsula.


 In addition to my own research I was able to aid in the research of my colleagues across subfields including turtle conservation and Dengue fever. 


This experience, which I eagerly extended from the originally planned six weeks, allowed me to grow in several aspects.  First of all, it was my first experience conducting true ethnography so I learned all of the real and frustrating struggles associated with that, as well as the incredible reward and satisfaction after working through those struggles.  


While I am lucky enough to be very well traveled I have never been away from home for more than a month at a time. Living on a small island for three whole months with people who were originally strangers was challenging but allowed me to escape from my comfort zone and create a new home.


Through that foreign experience I've made colleagues, friends, and mentors that will last a lifetime. From the island I can take away the Spanish and ethnographic skills I learned and use them to inform my research and career aims in the future as I move forward to graduate school in Anthropology.

-- Ellison, 2014





Two summers ago in 2014 I had the awesome experience of attending Isla Mujeres Ethnographic Field School. The field school is an intense total immersion ethnographic course which allows you to create your own ethnographic project from the ground up. Classes focus on ethnographic methods which you take and practice in the field and complete in conjunction with daily research on your project.


Besides ethnographic research it is impossible not to get involved with the Isla culture and lifestyle. Every day I went out and completed portions of my research project, but also found time to take weekly salsa lessons, train to get my rescue diver certification, and attend more Spanish classes. Sunday afternoons were usually spent down at one of the beach palapas listening to live music and watching the sun set over the ocean.


The people who work at the field school couldn’t be more helpful and the community of Isla Mujeres is vibrant and extremely kind when it comes to helping with student research. Nearly all of my ethnographic interviews were conducted in Spanish which I then transcribed into English at a later date, but translators are easy to find usually at the price of a couple street tacos.


My project investigated Cuban migrants to Isla Mujeres, both legal and illegal, and the effect and place in society that Cubans occupy on the island. I illustrated this relationship through the festival Caridad del Cobre which is a Cuban festival celebrating Afro-Cuban deities of the Yoruba religion and Saint Mary. Caridad del Cobre culturally migrated to Isla Mujeres through interactions between the fishermen of Cuba and the fishermen of Isla. The culture of Isla and Mexico morphed Caridad del Cobre into a celebration of the Virgin Mary who protects the fishermen of Isla.


Cubans on Isla tend to run Cuban restaurants or promote and teach forms of Cuban art like Salsa and music. Illegal Cuban immigrants who occasionally land on Isla Mujeres are chased by Mexican authorities and if caught are deported back to Cuba. I interviewed some residents of Isla who reported to me that the general population tends to be sympathetic towards illegal immigrants and listened to a woman from Isla who aided fleeing migrants by sheltering them in her yard for a night. I heard rumors of prejudice against Cubans by the local people but never encountered it directly or recorded it during an ethnographic interview.


Post Isla Mujeres Ethnographic Field School I continued research on my Ethnographic project and discovered that heightened security along the stretch of water between Florida and Cuba has lead Cuban migrants to travel first to Mexico and then travel northward to the United States. Isla Mujeres is the closest land mass to Cuba, besides Florida, and intensified United States security along the coast has led to increased Cuban migration to Isla and Mexico. It has also created multimillion human trafficking circuits within the Yucatán Peninsula. These human trafficking circuits also transport Cuban baseball players to the United States who then demand part of the baseball players contract as part of the payment for smuggling.


The time I spent at Isla Mujeres was invaluable, I met lifelong friends, colleagues, and began to develop career oriented goals. The final note I have found to be the most helpful as anthropology can be applied such a broad spectrum of jobs that deciding on one or two can often be overwhelming, or at least it was for me.

-- Jack, 2014

The Isla Mujeres Ethnographic Fieldschool was the perfect balance of academic rigor and tranquillo island lifestyle. The active, real-world setting of the classroom provided valuable experience to my undergraduate education. Initially, I was a bit intimidated by the independent research project because I had just completed my freshman year of college and was still relatively new to the world of anthropology. However, after attending lectures and having one-on-one meetings with Dr. Pierce throughout the process, my confidence grew. The community on the island was welcoming and having the support system from the other students made Isla Mujeres instantly feel like home.


Academically speaking, the readings and lectures provided a strong theoretical background that prepared us for research design and implementation. The original project I designed before coming to the island completely transformed once I arrived and better understood life on Isla Mujeres.  Reworking my project primarily came from preliminarily research that helped me better fit the needs of the community. The finished product was a highly focused and relevant to contemporary issues of sustainable tourism on the island. This field school is a great place for the trial and error of a lot of research theory that we learned. After participating in this program I feel confident in variety of ethnographic research methods as well as how to improve future research.


Outside of the classroom, Isla Mujeres was a great place to live because it’s an complex blend of history and cultures on one of the most beautiful islands in the world.  Getting scuba-certified in these lovely waters was one of my favorite parts of the program and I can’t wait to continue diving! The baseball tacos, sunset swims, ceviche, and swimming with whale sharks were just a few of the many reasons that I fell in love with Isla Mujeres. I am incredibly grateful to have this academic opportunity among such a unique community. I miss the little island everyday, but I left the program knowing that I had made lifelong friends and colleagues.  This field school will challenge students in many unexpected ways, but they will undoubtedly leave having grown as an anthropologist and overall student.

--  Brooke, 2016




The Isla Mujeres Ethnographic Field School offers students the opportunity to partake in applied anthropology while also learning a bit about themselves as anthropologists.


Having hands-on ethnographic work, captivating course work and discussions with Dr. Pierce and visiting anthropologists, as well as insightful conversations with the community members makes attending this field school an experience for those interested in the social sciences they will always want.


Although I came to the field school with an anthropological background, any student can find their place within the program. I was able to combine my research interests of cultural anthropology and environmental studies to create my ethnographic project studying Sea Turtle Conservation on the Island.


The Isla Mujeres Ethnographic Field School has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my undergraduate career and I am very thankful to have been a part of the six-week program.

-- Nev, 2015

Through the Isla Mujeres Ethnographic school, I have been given an amazing practical education and foundation in the principles of anthropology and ethnography. In its intensive and immersive structure, the school allows you the independence to truly develop one's sense of self as an anthropologist. This is of course paramount to the execution of the theoretical background this school has also afforded me.


My time on the island of Isla Mujeres has not only enriched and excited me academically, but also as a person. My interactions with both faculty at the school, and the residents of Isla Mujeres has given me invaluable insight into a world outside of myself. It is so often that one's interactions can be insular and negatively self-affirming. This immersive exploration of both the multi-cultural and the multi-generational cannot be understated in its potential for personal growth, and was made available both formally and informally to me as a student throughout my entire time on the island. 


My time at the school has given me much more than all that is officially offered and promised. My classmates and myself have been blessed in our experiences at the school, especially in the safety and beauty of an island like Isla Mujeres. The time I've spent there will always be a gift to me, and I hope one day to return.

--  Janelle 2016

I spent the summer of 2015 at the Isla Mujeres Ethnographic Fieldschool. I’ve been back at my home university for almost six months, and I’m still constantly referencing my experiences at IFS—both to friends at parties and to professors. This program is extremely well-rounded and it adds more than just anthropological jargon to your tool belt.

As the program description says, students each prepare, conduct, and present an independent research project. When I read that, I had no idea what to expect. I had never done ethnographic research, and independent is usually a relative term in undergraduate programs. It was intimidating, but every student in my group made it through. After presenting our projects, we all went to the beach and talked about how far we had come as ethnographers in such a short amount of time.

The independence I had during IFS helped me grow individually as well. Before the program began, I had time to travel around Mexico alone. If you’ve never traveled alone before, you should try it, especially if you want to be an ethnographer. It teaches you how to talk to people honestly and the time actually spent alone, rather than meeting new people, you have to reflect on yourself and your surroundings. If I hadn’t done Dr. Pierce’s program, I would have never traveled around Mexico alone.


The most intimidating aspect of the Field School was always the diving portion. I’m pretty afraid of the ocean, and I’m not a strong swimmer. I even asked if I could sit that portion out months before arriving. Thankfully, that wasn’t an option. Breathing under water is incredible in itself. There is nothing like it, and it is worth trying at least once in your lifetime. On top of that, realizing how small you are in the scope of the world (which is mostly covered in ocean) is humbling, which is good for a new ethnographer. Finally, because the diving portion is so exhausting and you spend every moment of an entire week with the same people, you learn to trust them and you develop deep friendships with people who were strangers days before.

When I first discovered the Field School, I thought it was too good to be true. Shortly after being accepted, I was super intimidated by everything ahead of me. For anyone who feels similarly, the program is real, and it’s awesome. For anyone who is haltingly intimidated, email Dr. Pierce with all your concerns. He’s there to help. Everything you gain during this program is worth the nerves, and you can totally do it.

-- Paige, 2016


At that point in my life, I hated travelling alone, I wasn’t good at that, no one to bounce ideas off of, and no real rhythm for it. I didn’t know what to expect for I had never been to Mexico. I spoke some Spanish, but wasn’t fluent. Worries of utter incompetence on my arrival to the airport bugged me all the way down. How did it all come to this? Plans, I guess that is where we will start.


Before the Island, I had no real plan, I was just getting ready to graduate, doing a 2nd senior project for my other field, journalism. It had consumed me. It was dreadfully long research project on the dreadful subject of drone warfare. To cap that all off, I was really just knocking out the last few credits I needed to get my degree and was working a night job. Needless to say, at this point, my people skills felt more than a little rusty. Was that the drive that made me want to go to Isla and make a go at fieldwork? Probably was a piece of it- but what was the whole plan? Not, that I am particularly good at making them but I feel like there was something more to it. I thought then: maybe I had better just play it by ear. So, I got to the airport, snagged my luggage and walked towards where I expected to see my name on a sign. I was impressed to see all the myriad attractions being advertised in the airport that seemed to have an interior design style vaguely reminiscent of Jurassic Park to me. Will I find the driver who I was looking for? Will they know where to take me? Questions, rattled around like loose bolts: were there going to be any problems at the ferry? Would I be able to find my way there as easily as Todd told me I would? What about the questions I would have to ask of the people who lived on the island? I hadn’t been in the field yet. Sure, I had worked as a reporter asking a few small questions in a small college town but I hadn’t done a real ethnography. Up to this point questions tended towards small business start-ups, campus politics, and local events. Nothing had honestly prepared me for asking the difficult interpersonal questions about peoples’ lives, hopes, beliefs, and perceptions. More questions: Was everything all right at home? Was I running from that? Did I really know what I wanted to do yet? Academia? Fieldwork? Corporate Consultant? Public Sector? This project focusing on Teen Pregnancy was going to hopefully answer all that. I waited at the docks for the ferry, I got my ticket… stumbling through that process. I had lost my wallet at a ball game in St. Louis 3 days before, honestly, great luck. Somehow, we still managed to get all my documents replaced, all but an actual debit card. So I had exchanged a few dollars and expected to get more at an ATM, 10 tries later the prepaid gift card I got finally made the machine spit out a wad of pesos. Vituperative and exhausted from my flight, I sat there with my ticket. Other people drifted in looking 10 times more oriented to what they were doing. So, I just tried to play it cool and took some deep breaths, and thought: do as those Romans do. Halfway through the ferry, I struck up a conversation with a guy about my age from Mexico city. His English rescuing me mostly from my Spanish. So it seemed to lighten my nerves for a minute. I looked out towards the oncoming island, the grotto-pocked sound that separated it from Cancun. I spotted the hotel from boat. I got up and said something in bad-Spanish to the guy on the boat.


Cursing the language education standards of my home town in East Central Illinois, (or, at least, my nonchalant, arrogant, know-it-all former-self when I was learning it) I stepped off the ferry. Todd and I must have walked past each other twice on my way to the hotel and my double back to make sure I could have seen him. I walked into Hotel Paraiso and dropped off my bags and stepped out again to find him. The 3rd time was the charm. He took me to meet Jack who was getting lunch at the restaurant behind the hotel. We all wandered into Jul’s Palapa Bar and sat down and relaxed a bit, somewhere along the way into our forty-five minute conversation I started to feel at ease. I cleared my thoughts, took a deep breath in and realized I was in Mexico. A grin spread across my face, I noticed the warmth in the salty air, let my ears adjust to the sound of golf-carts, motos, and the occasional whirring blender. The next month and a half went by fast, too fast.


But I changed quickly, at least I like to think so. Those ridiculous tides of questions ebbed a lot and I trusted myself more and more to ask the right questions, use Spanish and let my surroundings provide a backdrop to the whole experience. I got a lot better at Spanish, learned to dive, swam with whale sharks, and felt as if each friend I had made was solid; especially, everyone in the school. We got to be fairly tightknit and that kept a lot of the worries of home in the back of my head. Though, I can say, with a strong degree of certainty, that at times I annoyed the heck out of them to no end. I feel like I really made true friends there, not just colleagues. Whether or not I really had a plan going into it, I am not sure. I did find something I was looking for: my confidence and footing in a place that I was a stranger in. Eventually, it had become my home in a lot of ways and I know I am going back someday. Now, I am trying to get into a graduate program and working to pay off student loans, so a bit of those tedious, little worries have started snaking their way back in. But I just have to remember where I have been, how I have changed, and my good friends I made in Mexico, Todd included. Then I know I can get through those tedious, little things because I can adapt to any situation I need to. There is a place out there that has its own time, where you can swim with benevolent, beige behemoths, dive to an underwater statuary by night, and wake up with the purpose of research and answering important questions. And once you find it, you can take everything you learned there home with you. Though, I know a piece of me is still back there.

-- Seth, 2014

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