“I’ve had the greatest three months of my life,” says Alexa Hill ’14, speaking of her semester in the Australia/New Zealand program. “I did it all – from snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef to surfing in Byron Bay.”
She was among the 32 students from Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Union College who joined Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies Tom Drennen and Assistant Professor of Biology Meghan Brown for a science and sustainability-focused experience. The group arrived in Brisbane, Australia, in late August and students spent three months taking courses at the University of Queensland. They then had a 10-day break to travel on their own and reconvened in Wellington, New Zealand, for the final two weeks of the program.
By the time it ended, they had visited a giant wind farm, seen a hydro plant, visited a landfill and recycling center, seen a geothermal plant, swam in sulfur pools, completed a 20-km hike up Mount Tongariro, neighbor to the fictional “Mount Doom” of “Lord of the Rings” fame, and stayed three days in a Marae – the traditional ceremonial house for the Maori people – among many other adventures in immersive academics.
“This has been an amazing, amazing adventure for the students, me and my family,” says Drennen. “I can’t imagine a better semester, both in terms of adventures and academics. Seeing first hand how other countries deal with various environmental issues, from climate change to water and food quality, is an incredibly valuable opportunity for our students. I feel really fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn along with this great bunch of students.”
Brown also enjoyed the opportunity to work with students in this unique environment. “It is a great privilege and great journey to watch our students transform over three-months abroad. They broaden their view of the world and of themselves and in doing so become more engaged in their educational passions,” she says.
While in Australia, they took classes in marine biology, terrestrial ecology and Australian culture and history that were taught by University of Queensland faculty. There were four major field trips tied to these courses: to Moreton Bay Research Station on an island near Brisbane; through the rainforest in Lamington National Park; a one-week stay at a research station on Heron Island, a 40-acre island in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef; and to Carnarvon National Gorge, about a 10-hour bus ride from Brisbane, studying terrestrial ecology.
The fourth course, co-taught by Brown and Drennen, was “Sustainability Down Under,” in which students compared and contrasted attitudes and practices about food, energy, waste, water and biodiversity in Australia and New Zealand with those in the U.S.
“It was unbelievable that I had the privilege to have class on the beach at Heron and in the middle of the Outback. Our lab work included monitoring fish behavior while snorkeling, and our lectures were taught after a long day’s hike in a cabin drinking hot cocoa,” says Hill, a chemistry major and environmental science minor who found the diversity of the coursework and excursions to be an incredible opportunity.
“We white water rafted in New Zealand and drank from fresh water streams. I lived with a host family in Brisbane and learned how much we take a simple thing like water for granted, when Australians suffer through droughts and water shortage. But most importantly, I got to experience living in a completely new country miles away from home, away from tourists and immersed with new people that I will keep in touch with forever,” she says.