While students studying off-campus this spring have just begun their adjustment, students who spent their fall semester away are making the opposite transition back to life at Bowdoin. These students' stories are just a few of this fall's off-campus study experiences.
Despite the fact that Ike Irby '09 contracted typhoid fever, three types of dysentery, several parasites, salmonella, a stomach infection, and the flu during his sojourn abroad in Madagascar, he still looks back on it as "the most amazing experience that I would do over and over again."
Irby spent the fall semester in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, with the School for International Training (SIT) Madagascar program in ecology and conservation, where he took courses in French, Malagache (a native dialect of Madagascar), environmental studies, and field studies.
"The classes were awesome," said Irby. "We had segments like Lemur Ecology, Coral Reef Ecology, Village Studies, Fishing Culture Studies, and so much more."
Through his coursework, Irby encountered a range of wildlife species cohabiting the island. On one particular research trip to the Ranomafana rainforest, he encountered several species of lemur, including a rare golden bamboo variety.
"We were the first group in eight months to spot [this type of lemur] in the rainforest," he said.
In addition to academic work, Irby spent a substantial amount of time in several rural communities. "We lived in many villages and worked with the community quite a lot," he said. "We would farm with families and do traditional dancing with them every night."
Looking back on his four-month experience, Irby said he saw it as "a semester of extremes."
"I had the best times of my life and got to experience true elation and joy, and I had some of the worst times while sitting in a Malagache hospital alone, not being able to communicate in my native language," he said. Irby's regular e-mail dispatches home to family and friends revealed that he took his many bouts of illness in stride, continually appreciating the varied opportunities and experiences of his time abroad.
The return home in December came with a significant amount of culture shock for Irby.
"It was a strange re-entry experience," he said. "Returning home just in time for Christmas and the height of consumer America after living in one of the poorest countries in the world was a little hard to swallow."
Through SIT, Lindsey Bruett '09 spent her semester in Chile, where she lived both independently and with several different families throughout her stay.
Bruett spent the first seven weeks of the semester living with a family in a city while taking classes. She then traveled to the Andes mountain range in northern Chile for two weeks and participated in two other homestays, one with an indigenous family. Bruett then spent her final five weeks conducting an independent study project in the city of Valpara¡so.
Chile's vast expanse provides for topographic diversity. Bruett said she enjoyed the ability to explore a country with such unique features.
"It's an incredible country because it is so long," she said. "It covers an amazing amount of different kinds of climate and geography. You're able to travel in the same country to the desert in the North and Patagonia in the South."
After spending a semester in Costa Rica several years ago, Bruett said that she realized the stark contrasts between Latin American countries.
"Part of me was surprised by how different Chile really was?all it shared with other Latin American countries was language," she said.
Chile, once under communist rule, is now led by a socialist government. However, Bruett said, Chile continues to recover from years of government oppression under military dictator Augusto Pinochet.
"My assistant program director had been in a Chilean concentration camp and tortured," she said. "It is very apparent in the ethos of a community? people are pretty guarded and don't want to open up. Twenty years ago that would have been very dangerous."
Bruett said she encountered a substantial amount of anti-American sentiment in Chilean cities, but said most Chileans did not hold her nationality against her.
"All over the place in the cities there is anti-American graffiti, but people welcome you in and see you as a student, not as an American," she said.
Annie Chisholm '09 recalled being chased by a group of monkeys as one of the more vivid experiences during her time abroad in Costa Rica.
"I was doing field work and taking some different plant samples when some monkeys started howling at me," she said. "They tried to poop on my project and six of them chased me around a little deserted shack in the middle of the rainforest."
Chisholm, a biology major, spent the fall semester with the Council on International Exchange's (CIEE) Tropical Ecology and Conservation Program. The program is based in the Cloud Forest Preserve in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and maintains a focus on biological field work.
"All the learning happened outside," said Chisholm.
Chisholm took courses including Tropical Ecology, Tropical Diversity, Humans in the Tropics, and Spanish Conversation. During the last month of the program, she conducted an independent study that explored fungal compounds in various rainforest plants.
"I used leafcutter ants to test how strong different plants were and whether they had anti-fungal properties," Chisholm said. "It was challenging work."
Part of the program included a homestay with a local Costa Rican family.
"The homestay was great. I had two brothers who showed me around the area," she said. For one month, Chisholm immersed herself in the region and recalled "learning how to cook the local cuisine" as one of the highlights of the stay.
Upon the return to her home in San Francisco, Chisholm noted a sharp contrast between the fast pace of life in the city and the relaxed lifestyle in Costa Rica.
"It was really overwhelming, coming back home," she said. "There were so many people and cars. I kept expecting to hear a macaw when I woke up in the morning."
For Chisholm, the program left a lasting impact on her social conscience.
"We traveled to pineapple plantations, and through seeing those working conditions I gained an awareness of the social complications of consumerism," she said. "I am definitely more environmentally conscious in terms of daily life. I realized that I have a lot of stuff that I don't need."
SEMESTER AT SEA
While her fellow Bowdoin students wrestled with below-freezing weather back in Brunswick, Aspen Gavenus '09 spent her semester in the sun aboard a sailboat in the Pacific Ocean. Gavenus had the opportunity to swim near a volcanic island and watch dolphins while learning to man a vessel alongside other students.
Gavenus spent the first six weeks of the SEA semester program at the program's campus in Woods Hole, Mass., where she said she studied oceanography, nautical science, and the history, literature and culture of going to sea.
Alongside 15 other students as well as 14 crew members, including a captain, scientists, engineers, mates, deckhands and a cook, Gavenus sailed from San Diego, Calif., to Puerto Vallerto, Mexico. During the students' six weeks aboard the boat, Gavenus said they gained increasing responsibility for sail-handling, navigating, cooking, cleaning and deployment of scientific equipment.
Gavenus said she seized every opportunity while aboard the boat, and enjoyed even the most unappealing chores.
"We spent most of Saturday cleaning the ship, and somehow even that was exciting," she said. "I remember thinking, as I sprawled on the galley sole (kitchen floor) with my head in the oven, covered in baking soda, water and burnt grime, 'Wow! I'm sailing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Normally I would hate this, but I'm doing it on a boat, and somehow that makes me love it.'"
Toward the end of the trip, the boat's crew turned off all electronic or modern navigational equipment such as the boat's GPS, and covered up the boat's compass. The students employed traditional Polynesian navigation methods to steer the ship on its course, Gavenus said.
"It was amazing to be able to get to where we needed to be using only the stars, sunset and sunrise, wind, ocean swells and timing how long it took for a piece of trash to float from the bow of the boat to the stern," she said.
Gavenus said she urges Bowdoin students to consider taking a less conventional semester abroad.
"Where else will you have the opportunity to do something like this again?" she said. "You may get seasick or stung by jellyfish, you will be sleep deprived and probably sunburned, your hands will be calloused, and you will be dirty. But for me, it was all worth it."