Reflections on ENVS 345: Conservation and Sustainability of Neotropic Ecosystems
The faculty-led program in Belize satisfies the university's engaged learning requirement. To learn more about the program, please read students' engaged learning reflections below. These reflections respond to the connection between the course and the university's mission statement as well as exploring how these course impacted the students' personal, intellectual, civic, and/or professional development.
My dad wrote to me, “Just look at where you are, you’re in another country, another continent, learning things you probably never imagined you would know.” For that, I have to thank God that I am where I am. That Loyola and I chose each other. For me, taking this course wasn’t about bragging rights about visiting another continent and its exotic rainforest, nor about getting a different “cultural” experience, nor anything that encompasses why a tourist goes to disparate places around the globe. Taking this course was for learning what I know and what I don’t know, and why I should and need to learn more. I came into the course with a strong desire to go to Peru to understand and explore a strategy that to me, beautifully epitomizes sustainable living as it incorporates conservation, community engagement, youth participation and growth, economic security, the generation and sharing of knowledge, and the mobilization of that knowledge as its own approach to a cause. This strategy is called community-based conservation. It can be resilient, flexible, innovative, inclusive, effective, holistic or centrally focused, and if it’s implemented correctly, it is always striving to be just. And learning, every step of the way over its implementation and continued success, is imperative.
Community-based conservation enables that every member become equipped with the resources, tools, and knowledge to protect and engage in the sustainable use of our shared environments and resources. Community is a general term used for what in actuality is a myriad identities clumped together based on some characteristic that they all have in common. Being at Loyola has honestly been one of the best communities that I have ever found myself in. Every course I’ve taken, every person I’ve met, every professor I’ve had have all been influential and examples that finely represent Loyola’s mission. I feel like it’s harder for me to be here than a lot of my peers but I feel that I belong here because I have a sincere heart to want to learn so that I can apply my knowledge to fight for justice in so many causes. I know for sure that I’m guided by my faith in the paths I venture in, I always try to let myself be guided by it. Before Loyola I knew very little about community-based conservation as an actual approach that could be realized. Once I learned about it in previous courses and now that I saw it and briefly lived it in Peru, I’ve never been so hopeful about a potential future career or research opportunity.
Father Mitten asked some of my classmates and me if we ever thought we’d go to Peru. I said I thought I would have eventually because I’ve had a growing interest in Latin America, specifically in regards to community-based approaches to sustainable development and conservation which I’ve sincerely considered pursuing in the future. But I also answered that I certainly didn’t think it would happen this fast. It just dropped into my lap and I couldn’t be more thankful for having been selected to be a part of the course and to have gotten this experience. It was such a gift to get to see something my heart has been growing a true passion for. If that’s a message from God that I should pursue it, then this was quite a wonderful call to it. To make things even better, there is an Inkaterra Association that offers to support just about any research opportunity anyone could think of that relates to conservation.
This engaged learning experience was meaningful in the most profound way that allowed me to merge two passions. Caring about the well-being of people and caring for the beautiful Earth we find ourselves in. It was directly connected to the mission in the sense that faith is my driving force and I can use that along with the knowledge I gained through the course and in Peru to think critically about how such systems of community-based conservation are operating; how these systems are benefitting the communities, what’s missing, or what can be improved for both communities and the natural conservation. In addition, our group’s contribution as citizen scientists in the collection of a bird inventory to input in an E-Bird database will prove to be beneficial to conservation efforts in the long-run, and someone or other groups may specifically benefit from our small but meaningful contribution to the database. We couldn’t have done it without Father Mitten’s unique avian expertise. He was the perfect professor because of his knowledge of all things natural and his enthusiasm. He inspired me to become as just as well knowledgeable about something; I would hope its tropical plants, namely all the ones that produce edible fruits for human consumption.
I want to conclude not by reiterating how significant this entire experience was to me, but to say that because I have had this experience, I can’t put the importance of the subject matter, conservation of Neotropical ecosystems, and sustainable, community-based approaches for the enhancement to the livelihoods of the local communities, out of mind. Even though I don’t live in the tropics, I constantly find myself thinking about Peru, or thinking about all the possibilities in Latin America, all the opportunities to make positive change for people and to modify behaviors for the protection of the surrounding nature. This opportunity has been the second step I take on a journey towards those future possibilities. The first one started with a Human Dimensions of Conservation course that instigated my concern about helping more than just nature but also the people who live within it. This course has allowed me to live that service.
I can honestly say that my time in ENVS 345 has been one of the best, if not the best, experience(s) I’ve had at Loyola. We spent the beginning of the semester learning about the neotropics, their organisms and ecosystems, and methods for promoting their conservation. This part of the class was especially interesting to me as I’ve had very little exposure to these topics, my only experience with conservation and sustainability being Ecology. I’ve always been interested in those topics, though, so getting some formal exposure was a nice change of pace. The most important aspect of this process, and the way it relates to Loyola’s mission statement, is that we as a group are, to be cliché, stewards of the earth and as such should take care of and protect the natural environment. In addition, not only do we have a moral obligation to protect the environment for its own sake, but the moral obligation extends to aiding the plight of the less fortunate around the world and preserving natural beauty for future generations. This class got us to think about ways to do that and our place in doing that. Not only did it present us with possibilities that have already been tested and used, but it also equipped us with the skills and knowledge necessary to develop new ways of protecting the environment. While my chosen career path isn’t specifically related to conservation biology, what I learned has helped to inform my areas of focus, and I hope that I’ll be able to find a way to incorporate conservation and sustainable practices into my work as an environmental engineer.
All of the aspects related to the coursework were interesting, important, and educational, but the heart of this class was our time in Peru over spring break. This was where we could see what we’d discussed, but our experience was so much more than what learning from a book could have prepared us for. Everything we encountered was awe-inspiring. It was easy to “seek God in all things” in such a beautiful new environment, and even the non-religious among us were moved in some way.
For me, the main aspect of the trip was the confirmation that I had chosen the right path. For a long time I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in short of wanting to go to graduate school. I only recently decided that I wanted that education to be in field related to the environment, and that conclusion came after I sat down and thought about what was really important to me. The environment was the answer to that question I’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time getting to see the natural wonders of the United States. This is where the importance of the topic came from for me, but my experiences were all with things that, while special and awe-inspiring in their own ways, I had an idea of and knew what to expect. I was still a little unsure if just going down a path related to the environment would be enough of a motivator for me. This trip dispelled any doubts for me. The Amazon rainforest is such a diverse and one-of-a-kind place that I doubled down on what was motivating me as soon as our boat left the landing. I saw so many amazing plants and animals I never even dreamed of seeing in the wild, and I took part in so many experiences that at the time I could barely believe it was actually happening. The natural world truly is a wonderful place. We need to do what we can to protect it, and I want to do everything in my power to be actively involved in that process.
The final, and possibly most important, aspect of my engaged learning experience was the interaction with the other students, Father Mitten, and the amazing local people we met on the trip. Everyone involved in this experience was just as passionate, if not even more passionate, as I was with respect to learning about and being actively involved in the protection of the environment. This was new to me since essentially all of my classes up to this point had been in subjects not directly related to the environment, so I was pretty much alone in wanting to apply my skills and knowledge to protecting the environment. The people I interacted with inspired me to be more involved in environmental issues than I already was, and they reassured me that I was not alone in what I cared about despite it kind of feeling that way a lot of the time.
The way I’ve been describing my experience with ENVS 345 to those who have asked about it is that it was not so much life-changing as it was life choice-affirming, if it can be said that that is a thing. I had already set myself on a certain path, and this course made me confident that the path I’ve picked is the one I’m meant to go down. I came back from my spring break excited to move on to the next phase of my life so that I can more actively pursue my newly chosen goals. That’s made the last half of this semester difficult, but difficult in the best way possible. It’s been a while since I’ve been truly excited and eager to start work on something. This class has managed to inspire that in me, though, and I’m thankful to Father Mitten, my classmates, Loyola as an institution, and everyone else involved for allowing that to happen.
While many students use their spring break for relaxing, visiting family, or spending time with friends, I decided to use mine to live in a tropical rainforest for a week. It took a full day to get there, we slipped and got our boots stuck in the mud, got bitten by mosquitos, woke up at 5am in order to climb up 98-foot tall towers, and only once did someone wake up next to a critter, and it was probably one of the most amazing experiences of my life. My engaged learning was completed through ENVS-345, Conservation and Sustainability of Neotropical Ecosystems, which culminated with our spring break trip to Peru. While there, the fourteen of us split into groups that were each responsible for a certain animal group, such as mammals or insects. My group and I were responsible for observing, identifying, and recording the huge array of birds that we encountered. Shortly after arriving back home, our group drafted a poster that was presented at the Undergraduate Research and Engagement Symposium on April 22nd, 2017.
Through this class and trip, I was able to connect with and truly explore Loyola’s mission statement in a number of ways. First was the diverse community that I was able to meet and get to know, both from Loyola’s own campus and also while abroad in Peru. It was an amazing opportunity to branch out and get to know thirteen new students, each as passionate about their education, future, and desire to go out and set the world on fire. As a second semester senior, I had found a very close group of friends and felt comfortable with the place that I had found in the Loyola community; never once did I expect to come away with a whole new set of friends and people whom I can laugh with, have great conversations, and ask for help if I ever needed.
Secondly, this experience, at its very core, was meant to expand knowledge in the service of humanity and the environment. Research has shown that when people share a connection with a place, they are more likely to want to protect it. Our world is currently at a crossroads as climate change is already beginning to wreak havoc in different parts of the world. While there are many contributors to carbon emissions, deforestation and habitat destruction are some of the largest and now, after finally seeing tropical rainforests in the Amazon Basin in-person, I feel that much more responsible for being an advocate against the continued devastation in South America, or truly any part of the globe.
Finally, this engaged learning experience impacted several areas of development in some ways that I could never have accepted. Personally, I consider myself a fairly introverted person, so an experience like this was rather out of my comfort zone. Professionally, I am exceedingly proud of myself and the bird group for the research that was conducted, such that I feel comfortable jumping right into a new area of study and adapting to the methodologies and theories of that area. I may not eventually go into environmental science or policy, but I certainly acquired a new appreciation for those in this area and the challenges they face moving forward. I desire to study mental health, and I truly see the parallels between mental health and the environment in that they are both areas completely underappreciated and underfunded in this country, so I have a new solidarity with those who dedicate their lives to caring for our earth.