Thank you, Eckerd!

Technically I’m not supposed to be blogging here anymore since I officially graduated yesterday morning, but after four years of this job, I felt like I had to end with some sense of closure. In thinking about how I would end my EckerdLife legacy if you will, with one final post, I’ve decided to provide a list of 7 lessons learned — things I wish I would have known when I started at Eckerd, and things I learned along the way in the hopes that it might benefit future Eckerd students some day. Here goes:

Get involved. I can’t emphasize this enough. If you know what you like, find a way to do it on campus and find others who like what you like. If you don’t know what you like, try lots of different things! Either way, invest yourself in something. It will pay off.

Act confident even when you don’t feel confident. I will be the first to admit I’m one of the most introverted people I know — I’m terribly intimidated by new people and new situations, but over the last 4 years, I’ve overcome that by literally pretending that I’m not. Life is the story that you tell yourself, so tell yourself that you’re confident and strong, and you will be. In the end, you have to be your own advocate. 

Don’t always take “No” for an answer. Sometimes you need to accept rejection, but the hardest part is to know when not to. In true Eckerd fashion, persistence is key when you find something that is important to you. I have learned this lesson hardcore, through implementing the Eckerd community garden, initiating our first environmental dorm, publishing an article, and so on.  

Get out of your comfort zone. Coming to college is a pretty big leap of faith, but don’t stop there. Travel, volunteer, take challenging courses, conquer your fears. Eckerd is a community, and communities offer support, so there is no better time to challenge yourself than when you’re surrounded by friends or mentors who will help look out for you. 

Be an opportunist. This is probably the most important lesson I learned at Eckerd. You are surrounded by opportunities: things to do, people to meet, questions to research, places to go. Find a professor to work with, apply for that intense winter term course, kayak out beyond Indian Key, take that internship even if you don’t know if you’ll like it. 

Create. YOU create your Eckerd experience. Decide what you want out of your college education, what you want out of life, and make it happen!  Create your world; the only thing stopping you is yourself. Be open to changing your mind, be open to learning from others, and use what you know as the building blocks of your life. 

Be a friend. Last but not least, being a friend is totally underrated and something that took me a long time to figure out, but something I now appreciate more than ever. At Eckerd, your friends are your family in some way. If you are kind and open to other people you will find that the community will open up to you, and ultimately that is what makes the experience worthwhile. 

So, four years, two BAs, high honors, four senior awards, a bunch of scholarships, and a lifetime of memories and friendships later, this chapter of my life has come to a close. It is with bittersweet sentiments and deepest gratitude that I bid adieu to my home, to Eckerd College. 

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Confessions of a Soon-to-be Graduate

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so terrified in my entire life. I mean, I’ve been pretty terrified before — coming to college for the first time, traveling abroad and alone for the first time, working at my first internship. But all of these activities have had definite start and end periods. They’re controlled, temporary, and fairly low-risk. And each time I know I’m coming home to Eckerd, back to my routine, my friends, my safe haven.

But this. THIS. The dreaded “G-word.” The big one. “Graduation.” What. The. Heck. 

Here’s my problem: I’ve done well in school, much to my surprise. I’ve done great, actually — better than I ever thought I could do. Not that that’s saying much; I came into college with relatively low self-esteem and low self-confidence, wondering if I’d even make it through 4 years, let alone with a double major, scholarships, and awards. 

I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunities and support that I’ve had so far, to have had people in my life who could see my potential and know what I was capable of, even when I didn’t know it for myself. 

So here I am in my final week at Eckerd College, having now reached this slow realization of how successful and fortunate I’ve been in these last 4 years. Behind me is a solid path laid of experience and ahead of me is a field of opportunity. The question is, where do I go next? 

I came across a photo I took while backpacking through Snowdonia National Park in Wales a couple years ago while studying abroad, which I think illustrates well my feelings toward the future right now. Like the nonchalant ending of the cobbled path, I feel that the solidity and certainty of my life thus far is this close to petering out benignly into that boundless field of opportunity and apprehension.  From there I can go any path I choose; I can blaze my own trail or take the one that is more clearly laid out. But, like the valley in Snowdonia, no matter what direction I choose, there will be mountains to overcome, and rivers to forge. 

Right now I’m standing on the edge. As long as I don’t move, I don’t have to make any decisions, right? I wish. As soon as I make my choice of that first job I’m going to accept, the first risk I’m going to take, all the other opportunities will collapse into nonexistence, and a whole new set will take their place. I just need to find the courage to step off and pick a direction.

Six days until graduation. I hope I’m ready. 

Making a Difference: An Evening with Dr. Goodall

Photo by David Noe 

(Photo by David Noe, courtesy of Rollins College)

Last week I had the incredible opportunity to meet one of my childhood heroes, and, quite possibly, one of the people who inspired me to pursue Environmental Studies and Anthropology. Dr. Jane Goodall was speaking at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL, and so, through our Anthropology club (The Bipedal Society), I organized a trip out to see her. 

Getting into the Rollins College auditorium was utter chaos; four thousand people swarmed the parking lot forming confused lines, hoping to get limited tickets for auditorium seating. Unfortunately, my group arrived just as the last tickets were given away, so we hurried to overflow seating next door, which provided a large screen with a live feed of her talk. I have to say, I’m actually glad we were watching on the screen, as the auditorium was so large and crowded it would have been impossible to see; as it was for us, we got a perfect view the entire time!

To be honest, Dr. Goodall’s message was one I have heard time and time again, yet I couldn’t help but feel that if she could be so positive and hopeful, even with all the changes and events she has seen in her life time, I have reason for hope, too. 

She spoke about how she came to be where she is today, with the support of her mother who fostered her interest in natural history, and the opportunities provided to her by the famous Louis Leakey. Dr. Goodall was incredibly humble in describing her experiences, emphasizing the influence her mentors had on her success, and her own determination to accomplish her goals. 

She also talked about our evolutionary relationship with chimpanzees, how our species are so similar and yet both so capable of such horrible violence and atrocities. She said that the problem with humans however, is that “Money became a god, and we lost touch with the natural world and reality.” While chimpanzees can be just as violent as we can, as intelligent human beings we have a responsibility to overcome that propensity for violence. However, she said that our human cleverness has gotten the best of us and we use our intelligence in the wrong ways.

At the end during the Q&A, she was asked what advice she has for students who want to follow in her footsteps. She answered, 

"Well, the advice I have for the students, I think I really have to repeat what my mother said to me: If you really want something then you must work hard, and you must take advantage of opportunity, and you must never give up. …I think the most important thing is don’t jump into anything. Take a gap year, perhaps. Because, you know, the most important thing in my perspective is that you embrace a career that you are passionate about and you don’t embrace something just because it might give you more money. That’s a big mistake.”

Her message resonated with me deeply as I am currently in the middle of my post-graduation job search and trying to figure out how I can become financially stable and independent, while still accomplishing my dreams. 

Is this where my aspirations end? Am I now doomed to work mediocre jobs to pay off my horrendous school loans for the rest of my life? With all these doubts running through my mind, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear Dr. Goodall speak, and I hope my future will do justice to the inspiration she has instilled within me. 

A Humbling Experience

Four years of college and a fair amount of world travel can prepare you for a lot, but there are some things for which you can never be ready. Comprehensive exams are one of these things.

With a double major (environmental studies and anthropology), I had to go through two Comps courses at the same time. This isn’t unusual by any means — the way many of Eckerd’s majors are set up makes them conducive to completing a dual degree, and many people go for much more difficult combinations than mine. But, knowing myself (or at least THINKING I knew myself), I wasn’t sure if I was the kind of person who could pull it off. 

Last year however, when I was second-guessing my decision to go through with the double major, my mentors assured me, “if anyone can do this, YOU can.” I wasn’t so sure, but my friends said the same thing. As it turned out, I was really the only one doubting myself and I’m glad I was wrong. They were right, I COULD do it, and I did. 

It was an extremely humbling experience though. If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know how much work it was just getting ready for the exams. After all that prep, essay-writing and multiple choice exams, I couldn’t help but feel quite accomplished. 

This euphoria was short-lived, however, thanks to the oral defense portion.

Pretending I was confident and not at all intimidated as I entered the conference room on Friday, my ego was quickly crushed, wrung-out, and shriveled up dry as seemingly every detail was challenged on my essays. It was probably one the hardest academic experiences I’ve ever had but it was excellent practice in defending my views under extreme pressure.

After 90 minutes of pure terror I managed to come out alive with a B+. It wasn’t the A I had striven for, but considering 6 months ago I was wondering if I could even finish the major, I am kind of proud of myself. 

Yesterday I finished the written exam portion of my environmental studies comps as well, so I’m almost home free. Thirty-three more days of college to go, and no more comps exams!

Now to get a little sappy, I really do owe it to my professors, family, and friends who believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. I don’t want to say I couldn’t have done it without their support, but there is a lot to be said for having people in your life who encourage you and push you to strive for your best. And to be able to achieve it is the best feeling in the world. 

Spring break service learning in Iceland: There and Back Again

After our mid-week ice climbing excursion, I was re-energized to take on the last few days of work at Skaftafell National Park. Little did I know however that Thursday would be our hardest day yet. That day we had to haul lumber up and over a mountain to Svartifoss, the park’s most popular waterfall, where a footbridge was being built to cross the river. We split into 2 groups, one to carry lumber over a 1km trail, and the other to carry it down a 3/4km trail.

Now, this may not sound all that difficult, but take into account it was cold, raining, and the path was steep, narrow, and slippery, some parts with a sheer drop down one side. We tried various methods of carrying the lumber, but found it was best done individually, with each person carrying anywhere from 1-3 pieces depending on size (some were nearly 8ft long), and making multiple trips back and forth. 

It’s fascinating to see what your mind and body can do when put to a physical challenge like that. Obviously it was harder for some of us than others, and for me as someone who’s naturally small and doesn’t have much upper body strength, it became a mental challenge to keep my body going even when it just wanted to give out.

What helped more than anything was that our whole group once again rose to the challenge and worked harder than I think I’ve ever seen anyone work before. Everyone was always offering words of encouragement, a hand when someone was struggling, or keeping up a conversation to pass the sometimes grueling hours. 

It was no surprise that the next day we were all more than happy to be going back out to the valley in Armon’s tractor to finish taking down the sheep fences. As we discovered however, warming spring temperatures had caused snow to melt in the mountains, making the rivers flood. 

We rode in the trailer out about 40 minutes into the valley before disaster struck. 

We were trundling slowly down a river so deep the tractor’s wheels were underwater when… silence. And not a good kind of silence. This was the silence of the tractor’s engine failing, leaving us, Gummi, and Armon stranded in the middle of a rushing flood. Armon and Gummi talked hurriedly in Icelandic trying to get the tractor going, but to no avail.

Long story short, we ended up having to detach the walls of the trailer to build a bridge to the river bank, and hike back across the valley. Since we didn’t get to do any service work that morning, we made up for it by building more rock boxes back at the volunteer house later that afternoon. 

Saturday was our last full day in Iceland, and with no volunteer work to do we treated ourselves to a day hike into the mountains. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so hopefully the photos above will give you some idea of how amazing the hike was. 

Obviously, judging by the lengths of these 3 posts I’ve written on Iceland, it is immensely difficult to concisely sum up the week I spent there. I could say so much about the how great it was to be able to do service there, how beautiful the country was, how much I learned about myself and the world.

But I think that if there was anything I wanted to convey, it would be to take advantage of the opportunities around you, push your limits, and live in the moment every (at least now and again). Having this experience my senior year is bittersweet, but hopefully it is a foreshadowing of great adventures to come.

Spring break in Iceland: A Week of Service

Although our first day in Iceland was great fun and full of new experiences, the main reason for the spring break trip was, of course, service work. And work, we did! We worked a total of 5 days (with one excursion day mid-week), putting in between 25-30 hours per person of labor.  

Our first day was fairly easy. We spent Sunday afternoon cleaning up the campground near the visitor’s center about a 20 minute walk from the volunteer house, and then for the rest of the afternoon we did trail maintenance on some of the paths we had hiked the day before. These jobs consisted of cutting back overgrown birch trees and throwing the debris piles into the woods to make habitat piles.

It should be noted that none of Iceland’s “forests” are much taller than I am (a little over 5 feet tall!). Because of the area’s many active volcanoes and seasonal flooding, nothing really has a chance to get very big there. For this same reason, there is very little variety in wildlife — the only native mammals are the arctic fox (of which I saw 2!) and the field mouse. Most of the birds are migratory or seabirds. And the only insects I saw were moths and some weird little worms. But what Iceland lacks in wildlife, it makes up for in incredible scenery.

The second day’s work was quite a bit harder. The morning dawned cold and rainy, and we were tasked with building rock boxes out of scrap lumber donated to the national park by the government. (And yes, apparently Icelanders like to build boxes in which to pile rocks). It wasn’t too bad, just a little bit tedious and was the first of many tasks that would leave my arms and back aching all week long. We managed to make good progress however, and after lunch some of us were assigned to help Gummi clear rocks off a footbridge that had been washed out by a waterfall near a glacier. I must say, I was quite impressed by how hard-working our whole group was. No one complained and everyone put in an equal amount of effort for every task. 

The following day got even more interesting. We were met out front of our house by Gummi, Chas, and a local farmer named Armon who was driving a tractor towing a huge manure trailer. We were informed that we would be riding in said trailer about an hour into “The Valley” to tear down an old sheep fence that was no longer used. 

The tractor ride was harrowing, to say the least, as we had to stand and hang on to the rattling walls of the trailer for balance. Armon drove straight across the plain, traversing rivers so deep the wheels were underwater, barreling over boulders, and crawling up and over steep rock jetties. Eventually we made it, and spent the day doing trail work, and cutting and rolling up the wire sheep fence in the midst of glaciers and crystal-clear waterfalls cascading through the snowy mountains. 

Wednesday was our day off, and in the afternoon we met a local climbing guide named Einar for a trip to go ice climbing and caving on the other side of the glacier. When we arrived, we were geared up with harnesses, crampons, and ice picks, and led to a wide cave entrance at the foot of the glacier. 

Once again, I was totally breath-taken by Iceland’s natural wonders. Light filtered in through the walls of the cave, illuminating everything in a icy blue glow. Water dripped and poured down through holes in the ceilings and dark passages meandered off to the sides. Einar took us through a couple passages and into some small caverns before we headed out on top of the glacier to hike to our climbing site.

Never having walked on snow or ice before, I found the hike somewhat challenging. The crampons attached to our boots were helpful, but the ice was very unpredictable and Einar warned us to stay in line so as to avoid hidden cracks and crevasses under the snow. Eventually we came to the climbing site and after Einar and his son set up the ropes we took turns trying ice climbing.

Perhaps because I’ve rock climbed a lot before it wasn’t as hard as I expected, although there was a bit of a learning curve to figure out how to coordinate my feet with the ice picks and deal with the fact that there were no natural holds on which to balance. 

All in all, it was probably one of my favorite days so far. I never would have imagined I would be trekking across a glacier in Iceland before I graduated college, yet there I was. And it was still only mid-week, with more adventures and hard work yet to come. 

The new Center for Molecular and Life Sciences is coming along nicely. Check out these comparisons of the renderings and the reality.

Spring Break Service Learning in Iceland: First Impressions

It’s 6am and nearly pitch black outside as I peer out the small window of the airplane. We’re coming in for landing just a couple hundred kilometers south of the arctic circle. Along with 11 other students, I am about to spend the next 8 days volunteering for spring break with Eckerd’s service learning program in a place I had once only dreamed of visiting: Iceland. 

The week that followed consisted of some of the hardest work I have ever done in my life, in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been fortunate enough to visit. It couldn’t have been more different from anywhere I’ve ever been or experienced.  

Before we go any further, I’d like to point out that I am a born and raised Floridian. The most snow I’d ever seen before this trip was a dusting on the ground one time up north, and some brief snow flurries in London. Here however, I found myself traveling through a winter wonderland.

After approximately 10 hours of flying over the North Atlantic, followed by 6 hours of driving down deserted icy roads through spectacular snowy landscapes, volcanic plains, and mountains, we were dropped off at the volunteer house in the national park. And it was only noon. 

Setting aside our exhaustion, we settled in, grabbed a bite to eat from the food supplies provided to us by the park service, and headed up into the mountains for an exploratory hike.

It’s difficult to describe that first experience in the mountains; pictures simply do not do it justice and words cannot describe the overwhelming sense of total wonderment I felt as we hiked up the trail. The further we got, the more beautiful it became. Giant waterfalls, snow-covered alpine peaks, roaring rapids, and great vistas of the flat volcanic flood plains left me at a loss for the thoughts necessary to even comprehend this natural beauty.

We spent the afternoon exploring the mountains, before heading back to meet our hosts, a friendly Icelandic park ranger nicknamed Gummi, and the volunteer coordinator, a British gentleman named Chas. We were the first volunteers they’d had all winter, and the last ones they’ll have until May, so they seemed very grateful for our help that week.

After dark that night as we were struggling to stay awake and go over logistics for our week of service with Chas, Gummi came in through the kitchen and announced nonchalantly, “If you wanted to see the Northern Lights, now might be the time.”

Within seconds, all 12 of us scrambled up and found ourselves standing outside the house in the sub-freezing air, mesmerized by a pale, translucent green streak smeared across the sky. My first thought was, “That’s it?” But as we continued to watch, it grew in intensity and size, ebbing and pulsing nearly imperceptibly. It was one of the most beautiful and profound things I have ever witnessed in my life. Everything was so silent; the wind had died down, the snow muffled all sounds; there were no cars or planes or crickets to be heard. It was absolutely perfect.

Eventually Chas and Gummi left, but the 12 of us remained outside for a long time watching green lights put on an enchanting show in the night sky. It was the first of many unforgettable experiences and left me with an awe-inspiring first impression of Iceland. It felt like I had seen it all in the first day — volcanoes, tundras, mountains, snow, waterfalls, and now the Northern Lights. The best part? The week had only just begun. 

Academic reality

With all the study abroad happenings at Eckerd, it’s tempting to just use this blog as a travelogue, but the reality is that the majority of my life is much more mundane — or so it seems after having the same routine for almost 4 years now. Studying abroad has shown me so many new facets of life, it has instilled in me a sense of wanderlust that I cannot shake off now, and the rest of my everyday existence just seems to fade into the background. 

I have to remind myself however, that a lot of people are reading this blog either as alumni, family, or prospective students so I suppose my “everyday” would be something quite different in someone else’s view. So while I’m suffering through Anthropology Comprehensive Exams (known just as “comps” here), I thought I’d give you a window into what that really means.

You may have noticed these types of pictures floating around the internet lately, so I decided to make one myself:

Although it’s rather cliche, there’s a reason these memes have become so popular: they’re true. Okay, maybe not in the literal sense, but you get the point. 

Both of my majors (Environmental Studies and Anthropology) are extremely broad fields with awesome opportunities for travel, adventure, exploration, research, and applied work all around the world.

And of course, I totally want to see myself as some sort of Indiana-Jones-superhero-with-a-bull-whip or the idyllic anthropologist-in-the-field (maybe not Malinowski in the picture, but he’s a classic example). But once again, the reality is much more mundane. At least for now, I am the “what I really do” picture, buried in the books. 

Anthropology comps. I’ve complained a lot about them, but to be fair, it’s been an excellent review of everything I’ve learned over the last 4 years and it has really challenged me to synthesize what I know.

The stressful part is that we were given a study guide at the end of fall semester and have been on our own to learn it up until now. Between Thursday and Friday last week, we had 8 hours worth of essays to write, and then we will be giving an oral defense based on said essays in a few weeks. Supposedly this whole ordeal modeled after grad school, but as an undergraduate, it’s more than a little terrifying. 

Now it’s Sunday and I am still alive to report that I survived the entire essay portion.  Questions ranged from explaining how early hominin finds have affected our understanding of hominin evolution, to the degree to which non-human primates possess culture, to describing the differences between cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. 

I guess the scariest part is that my entire academic career so far comes down to these two days of exams. If I don’t pass comps, I don’t graduate with a BA in Anthropology. Fortunately I have my second major (counting on the fact I’ll pass Environmental Studies comps!), but I’d like to think all this work I’ve put into it so far will account for something.

As much as I admittedly dislike comps, I appreciate how much it has pushed me to stretch my comfort zone and try to express what I know. The months leading up to the exam were pretty excruciating, but now that I’ve done it I feel very accomplished, and I guess that’s worth something. 

Next week should be somewhat more relaxed, with just regular midterms, quizzes, and projects to work on. Apparently I’m also supposed to order my cap and gown next week — another jolting reminder of how close I am to being done with all this.  Soon, no longer will I be the student with my head in the books, but hopefully beginning to lead the life I have only imagined up until now. 

From tropics to arctic

Just over a month ago I was living on the tropical island of Roatan for Winter Term, and now in exactly 14 days I will be experiencing almost the polar (no pun intended!) opposite: Iceland!

This year just keeps getting more and more incredible. Against the backdrop of a stressful senior year of taking comprehensive exams, 5 classes, 2 jobs, and keeping up with extracurricular activities, I have found myself in the midst of preparations for a spring break service learning trip to Skaftafell National Park.

I am still in shock and can’t believe how fortunate I am, once again. Who ever would have guessed? 

The details are still vague but I will hopefully be learning more in the next couple weeks. So far all I know is that a group of 12 of us will be staying in a cabin in the national park and assisting with trail maintenance duties for spring break. We also might have the opportunity to go ice caving at some point, which I am really hoping for.

I’d like to think that I’m under no illusions as to how difficult it’s going to be — it won’t be as glamorous as I’d like to think, as we’ll be cold, wet, and in a remote area most of the time. And considering I’ve only seen snow twice in my life (in small quantities no less), I’m pretty sure that no matter what I’ll be totally unprepared for whatever this adventure has in store. But as I always say, every experience is what you make it, and so far that has held true for everything I’ve done. 

That said, Iceland is supposed to be one of the most beautiful northern countries (and not quite as “icy” as the name might suggest). It has a population of a mere 300,000 people, and supposedly 3 times as many sheep. My dad claims they speak Klingon, although most credible sources cite their official language as Icelandic.

The country is also known for its geothermal activity. Ironically, when I was studying abroad at the Eckerd London Study Centre a couple years ago, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull (have fun pronouncing that) erupted during our spring break, its ash cloud covering Europe and grounding all flights for several weeks. Fortunately, I happened to be traveling by rail. So in some strange, tangential way, I feel an endearing and inexplicable connection to Iceland. 

But until March 16th, my excitement will have to be suppressed so I can get through exams, presentations, and midterms. Just taking it one day at a time and trusting that everything will work out is so much easier said than done sometimes. At least I have Iceland to look forward to. :)