A group of students and a faculty member pose for a selfie with a beach and blue sky in the background.
Category: Student Experience

Title: After a Trip to the Yucatan, Undergraduates Find Their Plans Shaken Up

This story is a part of Georgetown’s summer adventure series, which chronicles what Hoyas are up to near and far this summer. Follow along on Georgetown.edu and on our social media channels, and read more from this series at the end of this article.

Anna Iacobucci (C’24) is standing in her grandmother’s raspberry patch in northern Massachusetts. It’s the summer before her last year at Georgetown, and she’s having an existential crisis. But it’s the best kind of existential crisis, she says.

A few weeks earlier, Iacobucci had visited Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula as part of a summer course offered through Georgetown’s Earth Commons Institute. She and 10 undergraduates spent two weeks researching and studying the biodiverse region’s ecology, sustainability and culture. She hiked up the side of an ancient Mayan temple deep in a rainforest. Peered over the mouth of a cave as thousands of bats flew out at twilight. Watched sea turtles lay eggs in the sand. Interviewed members of local Mayan communities about their agricultural practices.

And by the end of the trip, her senior year and post-graduation track changed hue.

“The trip opened my eyes to recognizing that I can go do a lot more than the trajectory I’d set myself up on,” she said. “It exposed me to so much I didn’t know existed.”

The experiential learning trip to the Yucatan was part of the Earth Commons’ inaugural immersive summer courses launched this year, helping undergraduates explore the environment and sustainability of multiple sites around the world from South Africa to Peru, with more sites to come.

“We’re bringing students to different international sites to give them hands-on experiences with environment and sustainability issues and empower them to see the world and our environmental challenges through multiple and diverse lenses,” said Pete Marra, dean of the Earth Commons. 

For students like Iacobucci, the experience shifted how they think about and interact with the environment — and with their own future.

No Beach Trip to Cancun

A beach vista in Bacalar, Mexico, where the students visited.

The students and two faculty leaders, Jesse Meiller, a marine ecologist and associate teaching professor, and Marra, who’s also Laudato Si’ Professor of Biology and the Environment, traveled to all three states in the Yucatan, the second largest area of continuous tropical vegetation in North America, after the Amazon.  

Before the trip, the students selected projects to research on the trip, but the main focus, Meiller says, was on experiential learning.

“We wanted to focus on the student experience,” says Meiller. “Not just the outcome and the products, but the actual learning process, the experiences on-the-ground. A big focus for the Earth Commons is on ecological belonging and using an immersive experience to get students closer to feeling like they are part of the environment, part of nature, part of the ecosystem.”

Daniel Greilsheimer (SFS’26) stands in front of Chichen Itza, one of the 7 Wonders of the World, in Mexico.
Daniel Greilsheimer (SFS’26) in front of Chichen Itza, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, in Mexico.

Daniel Greilsheimer (SFS’26), who’s studying international politics and minoring in journalism and environmental studies, researched how much trash accumulated near mangrove systems, a type of tree with roots submerged in water that is considered a nursery area for many marine species of fish and other animals, within the peninsula.

In addition to his research, Greilsheimer discovered a newfound interest in birdwatching, waking up at sunrise to spy different species with Marra, an ornithologist, and visiting the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Mérida, Mexico, to engage in bird catching, a method to study birds in the hand, mark and release them so they can be studied with binoculars or tags attached to their backs that then communicate with satellites. 

Returning home to New York, Greilsheimer finds himself slowing down, continuing to birdwatch and eager to become involved in Earth Common’s Common Home magazine as part of his journalism minor.

“The world is coming much more alive,” he said. “People and nature coexist so well in Mexico, especially in local Mayan communities here. It was a really cool perspective shift I’ll take back with me to DC.”

Learning in the Rainforest

Ava Zhang (SFS’26) grew up surrounded by concrete and skyscrapers in New York City, but was always fascinated by nature. During high school, she performed experiments in her tiny backyard to see how she might turn desert sand into soil that could sustain agriculture (which she did indeed accomplish and hopes to continue this research at Georgetown.) Zhang was hooked but wasn’t sure what a career in sustainability would look like. 

Ava Zhang (SFS’26) holds a bird in her hand.
Ava Zhang (SFS’26) found the trip to the Yucatan reinforced her interest in the environment and science and how it connects to business or policymaking.

At Georgetown, she explored different career possibilities, but felt unsure of which direction her life should take. She decided to go on the Yucatan trip for answers.

After the trip — and being exposed to natural habitats and human projects like Mexico’s new Maya Train, a railroad that will span the entire peninsula and, as the students studied, impact the region’s natural forests — she’s interested in exploring a career that connects science to business or policymaking. The experiential learning nature of the course also helped her consider new questions she wouldn’t have considered in a lab environment, she said.

“The trip changed how I think about science,” she said. “This trip will always be a reminder that what you do in the lab can have a bigger impact. It’s beyond the statistics you’re analyzing or the models you’re looking at. There’s a living component to it that I found really valuable.

“I had lab experiences in 20-square-feet in a classroom or in my little bedroom or backyard. But being out in nature and seeing the effects of your research, now that was really impactful.”

Shaking Up Senior Year Plans

Throughout the group’s 13-day trip, participants wound their way through coastal beach towns and deep into the jungle. They studied flamingos and other birds, boated past a crocodile in a lagoon, snorkeled and floated in ancient sinkholes, or cenotes, and learned from local experts and guides, connecting the environment with the local culture.

“Our goal in this trip, and in all that we’re doing in the Earth Commons and our proposed joint undergraduate degree with the College of Arts & Sciences, is to put students in real life situations that allow for multiple and diverse perspectives around challenging environmental issues,” said Marra. “This trip succeeded in that it had a perfect blend of fun experiences but also immersive opportunities around challenging issues for students to grapple with. I think it’s safe to say that this course was a transformative experience for these students.”

By the end, Iacobucci found her thinking on her post-grad life had changed. Before the trip, she had been working toward pursuing a career in environmental law, attending law school and eventually becoming a trial attorney. Now, she realized her life didn’t have to follow the stringent path she’d set — she could use her law degree in different ways: teaching, for example, or working in environmental policy. But she knew she wanted to pursue a career in the environment no matter what.

“We got so much cultural immersion and exposure to the different lives that you can live,” she said. “It broadened my perspective, but it also gave me opportunities within that broadened perspective.

In addition to her ongoing internship at the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, she’ll also now be spending her senior year interning with Meiller and other faculty in the Earth Commons on different initiatives and developing undergraduate courses for the proposed Joint Environment and Sustainability Program – a project partnership that developed through the trip. 

As for her existential crisis, Iacobucci has a positive view on it. One thing she knows for sure, she’ll continue to be involved with the Earth Commons, which is in the process of building a new joint Environment & Sustainability degree program with the College of Arts & Sciences for undergraduates.

“I’ve been so incredibly blessed to be at Georgetown because I had no idea what I was going to do coming in here as an undergraduate, and then I just sort of fell into these things,” she said. “I can’t think of another program anywhere that is anything like what the Earth Commons is developing. If just one class had this much of an impact on me, I can’t imagine how transformational the full program will be, and I am beyond honored to be a part of it

“I feel like the luckiest person on the planet for it.”

(From left to right) John Henry Lotz-McMillan (C’26), Elizabeth Mao (C’24) and Iacobucci (C’24) in Rio Lagartos, Mexico.