Monday, February 7, 2011

Randolph College Students, Faculty Explore Mexico During Winter International Studies Seminar

Students participating in Randolph College's winter International Study Seminar to Baja California Sur, Journaling Global Change, learned more about stingrays than they were expecting.

On the first full day of the trip, the group of students and faculty members were swimming in the Balandra Bay when Alexandra Williams '13 felt something sting her toe. Not knowing exactly what it was, she swam back to shore where the guide said it was a stingray sting, an unusual occurrence in that area.

“I just kept trying to keep myself calm,” Williams said. “I didn’t want to make it worse for everyone, but they were all great.”

With Williams in severe pain, the group kayaked the half hour back to their van, and then traveled back to the kayak outfitter’s office. “We saw the best of Randolph College students in action,” said Karin Warren, an environmental studies professor who helped lead the course with Laura-Gray Street, an English professor. “Instead of this being a bad omen, it set the stage for good camaraderie and adventures.”

Journaling Global Change was an interdisciplinary course that merged global change science and creative nature writing and journaling. During the winter break, the group traveled to Mexico where they studied the geology, climatology, ecology and culture of Baja California Sur while learning to communicate their experiences through creative writing and journaling. The group spent time in La Paz, where they went sea kayaking through a mangrove lagoon, and also spent a week at the Center for Coastal Studies on the shores of the Magdalena Bay, which is operated by the School for Field Studies.

They were able to visit an oasis ecosystem, where a small town has lived sustainably for centuries. They also explored mangroves estuaries, sand dune islands, and searched for gray whales in the Magdalena Bay.

During the trip by boat in the Magdalena Bay, the group was shocked to see a gray whale swimming toward them. The whale swam under the boat and lifted her head out of the water just in front of them.

“Seeing the sea lions, dolphins, and gray whales was the best part of the trip,” said Justin DeSmith ’12. “How many people can say they have been within a foot of a gray whale? Along with that, I had the opportunity to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time in my life. It was simply awe inspiring to know that I was standing on the other side of the continent.”

Warren has taught this course before and said it often is life changing for students. After the last trip in 2007, a student who was a math major ended up studying environmental issues in graduate school because she realized she wanted to work in the environmental realm. Another used the experience for her senior honors paper, which was eventually published.

“The best part is seeing the students experience a wonderful combination of exploration, adventure, and interdisciplinary learning in such an incredible environment,” Warren said. “Every day, we had an adventure that was infused with learning in a way that was both stimulating and interactive. It was obvious that this was a trip that would be very important for our students, and one we would all remember 20 or 50 years from now.”

DeSmith enjoyed the chance to learn more about the sustainability practices of other cultures. The group saw how people in the area used palm leaves for roofing, ate locally grown or caught food, and composted not only their food items, but their toiletries.

“Seminars such as these allow students to learn what is being taught to us in the classroom in a real world setting,” DeSmith said. “It is one thing to apply a teaching to a scenario. It is a completely different thing to actually be in that scenario.”

The course used the trip to teach students not only about the ecology of the area, but also how to write about their observations and experiences in a creative way. For Lee Nutter ’13, the opportunity allowed her to merge her passions for writing and the environment.

“I’m going to take ‘experience’ out of this experience,” she said. “During this trip, I learned to kayak, strolled through sand, hiked up mountains, fed seagulls, and snuck up on sea lions. I ate great food, met some really smart and funny people, and became a tiny bit more fluent at speaking Spanish. Unlike typical classroom environments, this seminar provided hands-on experiences, so I learned without trying.”

Even Williams, who recovered quickly from the stingray incident, said the trip was amazing. “I learned more about stingrays than I ever thought I would,” she laughed. “But it also showed me how great this community is. Everyone was really close, and we just became great friends. It’s amazing to be in another country and have our own views and different opinions, but at the same time you are one group. That was great.”