Punta Cana URP Summer Experience 2023

The summer semester brought a host of opportunity, travel, and adventure for 5 undergrads in the Dominican Republic. Read more about their experiential learning opportunity working with Puntacana Resort and Club’s Ecological Foundation and the Peregrine Fund.

 Students with faculty member Kyle Dost at the Sustainability Center. Left to right: URP faculty member Kyle Dost, students Valeria Guillen, Belinda Somogyi, Kylie Kauffman, David Favors, and Katie Curran.

September 29th, 2023

Early in summer 2023, five undergraduates set off on a summer experience trip to the Dominican Republic, coordinated by URP faculty member Kyle Dost and supported through Puntacana Resort and Club’s Ecological Foundation. After arriving at Puntacana International Airport (PUJ), the group was whisked through Puntacana Resort and Club to their home base for 10 days – the resort’s Sustainability Center. From their dorm-style communal abode, the students worked on 2 environmental planning and conservation projects:

  1. Environmental education regarding the endemic and endangered Ridgeway’s Hawk.
  2. Site mapping an eco-trail system within the resort featuring freshwater cenotes.


Puntacana Resort and Club is located in the eastern point of the Dominican Republic. Founded in 1969 by Dominican hotelier Frank Ranieri and New York investor Theodore Kheel, it was the first major resort in the now-bustling Caribbean destination of Punta Cana. The resort initially started at a small scale, with a modest hotel and service airport. It now encompasses the second-busiest airport in the Caribbean (PUJ), multiple hotels like ClubMed and The Westin, half a dozen restaurants, multiple award-winning golf courses, and approximately 2,500 homes and condos – all managed by Grupo Puntacana.  

Notably, Grupo Puntacana has a branch dedicated to social and environmental responsibility: the Puntacana Ecological Foundation. Headed by Jake Kheel, the Ecological Foundation has taken on numerous sustainability projects that have benefited the environment: coral reef restoration; sea turtle hatching; management of a nature preserve; facilitating the regrowth of the endangered Ridgeway’s Hawk; providing services to the local community like opening technical school; and ensuring health care accessibility through local clinics.

The Puntacana Ecological Foundation has a campus within the resort and partners with a variey of organizations, including American universities, to take on students, interns, medical workers, and environmental scientists.

Sustainability Center in Puntacana Resort and Club


Native only to the island of Hispaniola, the Ridgeway’s Hawk is a small but fierce bird of prey. It is often confused with the Red-Tailed Hawk, which is actually much larger in size. Once abundant in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, the population has fallen victim to farmers and hunters who shoot the bird to protect livestock, land, crops, and property. The species is now critically endangered, with fewer than 500 individuals remaining on the Caribbean island.

Fledgling Ridgeway’s Hawk being banded for monitoring and observation

Students Belinda Somogyi, holding a Ridgeway’s Hawk, and David Favors, holding a red-tailed hawk

The Peregrine Fund has been studying the Ridgeway’s hawk for more than 2 decades. Not only have they released numerous fledglings and rehabilitated injured hawks to aid in the regrowth of the population, but the organization is also undertaking a massive environmental education campaign. With the help of their team in Punta Cana, the Peregrine Fund is aiming to survey the entire country of the Dominican Republic in order to launch a nationwide environmental education campaign geared at protecting – and apprecia ting – the Ridgeway’s Hawk.

UF students assisted in this environmental education campaign by designing and testing slogans and logos for campaign usage. They also aided in surveying Dominicans about their understanding of the hawk and its ecological importance.  

Students Katie Curran and Kylie Kuaffman participate in surveying in rural communities

Students working in Veron surveying community members


Nestled in the southern half of Puntacana Resort and Club is an expansive nature preserve. The preserve houses the Sustainability Center and its numerous ecological projects, like an apiary, compost facility, research lab, iguana sanctuary, aviary observation tower, and aquaponics nursery. Within the protected forest area, the preserve also contains a series of interconnected freshwater lagoons, or springs. All areas of the preserve are open to visitors, although the lagoons in particular are becoming more and more sensitive to the impacts of increased traffic.

In addition to taking in the sites and learning more about sustainability in action, UF students are helping to provide additional steering for the new Los Ojos Eco Journey tour. The Los Ojos tour is a newly-launched, guided tour of the sites near the Sustainability Center ending with the lagoons. The goal is to better imbed environmental education into the visitor experience, while also moderating visitor traffic to these environmentally sensitive areas.

Grupo Puntacana VP of Sustainability, Jake Kheel, shows students sites for the new Los Ojos Eco Journey trail


The work that UF students did this summer builds on a nearly decade-old relationship between the University of Florida’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning and Grupo Puntacana’s Ecological Foundation.

In 2015, Dr. Jocelyn Widmer began bringing undergraduate and graduate students to Puntacana Resort and Club to conduct fieldwork in communities neighboring the resort. In collaboration with Jake Kheel and the Ecological Foundation, this data was used to provide information on the resources and needs of these local community members. Comprehensive data was collected on public health, water access, healthcare, utilities, transportation, and neighborhood structure. This work was the beginning of engagement for Kyle Dost, who first engaged with Dr. Widmer’s work as a graduate student at UF.

Kyle has now led his first group of students to Punta Cana, following the relationships and visioning forged by Jocelyn Widmer and Jake Kheel.

URP alumna Alyssa Henriquez and former URP faculty member Dr. Jocelyn Widmer during a 2016 study abroad across Hispaniola

URP alumni Kyle Dost and Alyssa Henriquez conducting field work in Veron in 2018


Katherine Curran, a junior in the program, was one of the students who took part in the trip. She was drawn to the opportunity to participate in two environmental planning and conservation projects with the Punta Cana Resort & Club’s Ecological Foundation. “I chose to go on the trip because I have never been abroad and this two-week immersive summer experience was very intriguing,” she said. “I was very interested in the endemic hawk educational campaign and the design of a sustainable eco trail within the resort.”

Students on an observation deck in Puntacana Resort and Club. From left to right: David Favors, Kylie Kauffman, Belinda Somogyi, Valeria Guillen, and Katie Curran

Belinda Somogyi, a junior, shared her thoughts on the group’s journey to the Dominican Republic, stating, “My favorite part of the experience was getting to see all of the different communities in the Dominican Republic. Often, you do not get to see outside of the resorts so it was a very immersive learning experience getting to survey local communities.”

Valeria Guillen, a senior, said, “My favorite part was gaining knowledge about the Ridgway’s Hawk and the other species found on the island. And mainly spreading awareness to the communities about Ridgway’s Hawk.” When asked about the trip’s exposure to sustainability and planning, she said “all the experience I got from sharing a common space, reducing energy use, using less water waste, less plastic use, different forms of transportation, seeing communities grow their food and have chickens, goats, cows, horses, etc.”

David Favors, a junior, found the cultural immersion to be the highlight of the trip. “My favorite part that I was able to experience was the cultural differences, yet I felt welcomed and learned a lot about them throughout my daily commutes,” he shared. “Between the Ridgeway Hawk Surveying and the Reserve Trail, I was shown more aspects regarding the built environment and the preservation of cultural integrity whilst making innovative progress.”

Kylie Kauffman, a junior, reflected, “This experience has helped me to see firsthand just how true the statement ‘knowledge is power’ is, noting how education has the ability to positively transform entire communities with the simple spread of knowledge.”

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