By Beth Pullias
“It’s one thing to read about it in textbooks, but it’s another to be able to see it before your eyes,” says John Probert, a junior environmental science major with a concentration in conservation. Probert was one of eight students who attended the Kenya Ecology and Conservation study abroad trip offered through the Center for Global Education.
Ryan Valdez, PhD candidate and academic director for the trip, has led the Kenya Ecology and Conservation study abroad trip six times. The two-and-a-half week trip takes place each January and includes visits to multiple national parks, safaris and meeting key animal and wildlife conservation experts. The trip allows access for students to visit and focus on ecology and conservation issues side-by-side with some of the top conservation experts with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).
For the Kenya trip, Valdez has given two assignments to his students. The first is to come up with a creative way to express how they felt about their experience in Kenya without using text. (Projects in the past have included scrapbooks, photography and even a diorama of the African landscape.) The other assignment is a 3,500-word term paper that is based off the scientific method and covers a specific animal or issue about Kenya.
“During the last course, I decided to bring the two together — for the students to come up with something artistic and would allow me to break the rule of forbidding text,” said Valdez. “Since I’ve worked closely with the African Wildlife Foundation, I wanted to find a way to give back what they’ve given to us — which is knowledge.”
Valdez spoke with the AWF marketing team and proposed that the journal that the students kept be used as blog posts to their site. The blog’s main goal is to share the message and importance of African conservation through diverse voices and perspectives. AWF loved the idea, and George Mason became the first university to partner with them for their blog.
From their love of coffee, lions, and African wild dogs to studying the wildlife landscape of Kenya, the passion for their topics and experiences show through every post. Out of the eight students who attended the trip in January, four have already been published and the rest will be added in the coming months.
“On my part, I was excited to capture the students’ reactions and emotions as they traveled to Africa — many for the first time,” explains Gayane Margaryan, online communications associate for the African Wildlife Foundation. “Their accounts allow us to glimpse their excitement as they encountered Africa’s treasured wildlife, and through their words we’re able to learn about the challenges and successes they found.”
Students who participate in the Kenya trip have the opportunity to earn 3 credits from Biology 435, Environmental Science and Public Policy 490, Geography and Geoinformation Science 399, or New Century College Experiential Learning 399.
“The students have gained so much from writing their blogs and seeing them posted. The students are published now and put that on their resumes. AWF is Africa’s largest conservation organization and the organization to work for if you want to go into conservation,” says Valdez.
Registration is open for the upcoming trip to Kenya until Friday, Oct. 4. Information on how to study abroad and the right steps to take for signing up are available on the Center for Global Education’s website.