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Study Abroad in Kenya | Ecology Student Story

Spanning across three diverse locations, our Ecology & Conservation Study Abroad Program invites students from all over the world to explore the complex relationship between Kenya’s indigenous communities, land, water and wildlife. Our aim is for students to leave this 4 week Study Abroad Program with heightened cross-cultural responsiveness, an awareness of their responsibility as global citizens and scholars, and the ability to reflect on themselves as scientists who think critically to solve real problems in our complex and changing world.

Meredith, a student who recently completed the program, reflects on her transformative journey below.

“When an email popped into my inbox with a header labeled “pre-departure transformative assessment,” I knew it was time to mentally prepare for my participation in EDU Africa’s Ecology & Conservation Program. One plane ride across the world later, I found myself bursting with nervous excitement. As I laid in bed the night before the course began, I couldn’t help but wonder what orientation would be like.

I woke up the next morning to find it cold and misty outside, a perfect backdrop to our introductory discussion on stereotypes about Africa.

Even though my fingertips were a little numb from the unexpectedly frigid weather, I couldn’t feel the cold. Instead, I was too busy flipping through the pages of the course syllabus, taking in every bulleted item of the itinerary.

While I read between the lines of the blueprinted schedule, a diverse team of faculty began a presentation that integrated wildlife management with some of the cultural and social dimensions of Kenya. Several faculty members paved the way in discussing how colonial, racial, and cultural bias might pervade an academic definition of “wild places” in Africa. I had been expecting a “traditional” science class introduction, full of hard facts and long terminology. Instead, this orientation offered a more holistic view of wildlife management and prioritized each student’s thoughts and expectations. Throughout the presentation, I was struck by how safe and nonjudgmental the space to share felt. I participated more in the first hour of the orientation than I have in some of my semester-long classes at university. I loved watching others eventually gain the courage to voice their opinions, and the first sense of “togetherness” began to develop then and there.

Ecology students during orientation at Brackenhurst

The program itself was centered around three different Kenyan biomes and their corresponding ties between ecology and society. Readings about ethnobotany and historical land loss appeared alongside papers on hydrology gathering techniques and biological fragmentation. Wetlands, forests, and savannas made our academic studies come alive as powerful spaces of learning. The understanding of each biome’s unique threats and needs anchored every other aspect of development within the course and reinforced deeper connection to the environment around us. This Ecology & Conservation Study Abroad Program revolutionized the scientific context by illuminating the empathy and social awareness needed to restore wildlife in the context of a changing world.

Ecology Students exploring the local Wetlands around Brackenhurst

The first week focused on the wetland biome and highlighted how “wild places” and people coexist and cycle resources. We studied under the guidance of Dr. Sharon Kahara, an environmental scientist who has been established in both Kenya and the United States for most of her career. The wetlands field work included lots of unplanned laughter, as people mucked around in several feet of thick red mud.

There’s nothing like mud (and insect larvae) to bring out people’s true selves.

We measured the species diversity of several sites, all of which were within walking distance from the classroom. As we progressed through various stages of the wetland we were able to see the abundance of life increase. By the time we reached the end of the wetland, we had found several species of frogs, insects, spiders, birds, and even freshwater crabs. Reading a study about biodiversity is one thing, but the joy of finding slippery frogs is an unforgettable experience. The data we gathered clearly showed how important wetlands are to increasing biodiversity and to urban developments.

Outside classroom in the Wetlands

The next part of the course took us through the restoration process of indigenous forest. At Brackenhurst Center, we were privileged to live in one of East Africa’s most successful examples of forest restoration. We studied plant taxonomy, soil pH, and some of the unique social challenges related to forest ecology in the context of a project that has been ongoing for two decades. Furthermore, the founder of the project, Dr. Mark Nicholson, acted as our lead course facilitator. This incredible opportunity allowed us to delve more deeply into academic concepts and offered us an invaluable well of knowledge to support our studies. Our fieldwork included measuring the health of saplings, creating drone footage to compare annual growth of the forest, and identifying various plants as capable for medical research. To conclude this portion of the course, we observed one of the last ancient sub-Afromontane forests in East Africa. As we stepped between fresh elephant tracks and giant tree trunks, we envisioned the vast ecosystems that restored forests could eventually become. Our definition of forests was challenged as we began to realize their ability to become physical reservoirs of culture and history. Hiking through the ancient forest allowed us to see the hopes and needs that drive the restoration of indigenous forests on all ecological and social spectrums.

Dr Mark Nicholson in the Restored Forest

The third week began with a drive through the Rift Valley. Dr. Stewart Thompson joined us as we climbed through suitcases into the interior of a white bus. The greenery of mountains and forests transformed into a palette of golds, greys, and hazy blue as we descended into the cradle of Africa’s most iconic wildlife: the savanna biome. Just north of the Tanzanian border, we found ourselves shaking hands with Maasai guides at the edge of Naboisho Conservancy. Their flaming red shukas (part of Maasai traditional dress) trailed gracefully in the wind as we hoisted ourselves into huge, sputtering vehicles. Giraffes and zebras dotted the horizon on the way to our new home, a well-concealed research station.

Monitoring the wildlife in Mara Naboisho

As a site of convergence between indigenous communities and wildlife, Naboisho Conservancy was a perfect place to study ecological restoration in a changing world. Between spatial data collection of wildlife movement patterns and interactions with Maasai guides at the Koiyaki Guiding School, the course gave us insight into the complex forces of environmental conservation. Our course facilitators asked deep questions about several controversial topics, such as the use of fencing in the Greater Mara Ecosystem. Once again, it was liberating to have course facilitators who were open-minded to new ideas and different opinions.

Dr Steward lecturing the students in Naboisho

Ecology students tracking animals in Mara Naboisho

On one of the last days, an old Maasai father allowed us to accompany him and his sons on their daily shepherding trek from the boundary of the conservancy to his homestead. We began our march as the setting sun illuminated the dust that billowed around the herd like mist. The sky was almost dark by the time the chaotic herd was contained safely in the homestead. After the cattle were locked up, an old Maasai mother milked a cow, laughing as we struggled to squeeze any milk out of the udders. A small, shy boy held up a solar-paneled light that flickered as darkness swallowed up the savanna. Older brothers told us about the horror of hyenas, lions, and leopards attacking livestock in the dead of night. We were all quiet as we drove off. This experience revealed aspects of Maasai life that filled in the blanks behind the controversies and research that we had studied. Visiting the Maasai homestead was one of the most defining cross-cultural moments of my lifetime, and it will always stay with me throughout my future career.

By the end of the program, the seams of everyday experience were bursting with four weeks of memories, academic growth, and a completely new outlook on life. As the same team of faculty concluded with a presentation about reverse culture shock, I realized that my time on this Study Abroad Program had profoundly changed how I viewed myself. While filling out EDU Africa’s post-transformative assessment, I began to comprehend how deeply the course had affected my identity. This program was not only rich with academic opportunity; it invited me deeper into a world of connection between wildlife and humanity, one animated by the thousands of colors and sounds that my brain had forgotten in a digital childhood. I laughed with new friends, found renewed vigor in my academic abilities, and connected with cultures completely different to mine. I began to trust the instinctual part of myself that guided me towards the conservation and restoration of wild places. By the end of the course, I had rediscovered my life again.”

Applications for our 2019 Ecology & Conservation Program starting 1 July are now open.  Interested in leading a group of students to Kenya, view our sample Faculty-led Programs in Kenya.