Through the United Planet’s Environmental Quest program and the Padnos Family International Internship/Research Travel Award, Chavon Thomas ’15 immersed herself in environmental sustainability projects and youth education in rural Ecuador during 2014-15 winter break.
A women’s studies major with a concentration in eco-feminism and health, and a Writing Colleague and public policy minor, Thomas spent two weeks with Conservandos el Bosque in Ecuador, where she learned about organic production of cheese and marmalade, produced yucca chips, worked with youths at the village school and participated in sustainability projects.
“I really admired how self-sufficient the village was and how they supplied work for the entire village,” Thomas says. “They produced and generated goods within the community and that’s how they maintain the village.”
As she taught English lessons to the local children, Thomas noticed that “despite how difficult and unfamiliar English was to them they were still excited and eager to share and made the most of learning experience.”
United Planet Quests are designed to be immersive, authentic, comprehensive and provide participants everything they need to succeed. The program elements allow full engagement with a new culture and the opportunity to forge strong relationships and ensure the trip is important, relevant and helpful to the community being served.
Thomas’s immersive internship was supported by gifts from the Padnos Family through an annual stipend, which funds a Hobart or William Smith student interested in pursuing a “green” internship and/or research experience abroad, covering lodging, round-trip airfare and a stipend.
When she found out during finals week that she’d received the stipend, Thomas says, “I was in awe, I was shocked.”
In the whirlwind weeks that followed, she had forms notarized and signed and prepared for her flight, though “it was smooth sailing once I got to Ecuador,” she says. “It was really awesome to see how the village works collectively to sustain itself. I loved the idea when I found out that not only would I be doing environmental sustainability projects but also I’d be able to work with kids. That’s my strong suit.”
Last summer, Thomas had the opportunity to work with four- and five-year-olds at a social justice summer camp, focused around environmental stewardship.
“Knowledge doesn’t become alive to us until we see another human being engaging and interacting with this knowledge,” she says. “I want the knowledge I spread to others to come alive, to be something worth learning.”
Thomas has plans to one day attend graduate school, perhaps in youth development, she says, as a means to “continue to work with youth, especially disenfranchised youth, youth without mentors. Wherever I end up I anticipate I’ll continue with my youth mentorship.”
In the more immediate future, Thomas is committed after graduation to working for City Year in Jacksonville, Fla., facilitating after school programs. Building on her experience in Ecuador, she hopes to offer “programs that are outdoors-oriented and allow youth to interact with the world around them and not feel like they have to have things to make them happy. Having a relationship with the earth, going outdoors and reading a book, or doing an activity that would allow them to feel that learning is not restricted to the classroom — the ability to learn is not confined to school. You’re forever going to be in a position where you’ll be able to learn.”