One of my assignments for my students is to have a few volunteers write a “First Impressions” blog entry about their initial immersion at the Centre and into the rainforest, so I suppose I should do the same! Here are the answers to some slightly modified questions:
Why did I choose to work abroad with the School for Field Studies?
After two years of working as an environmental educator and many less-than-successful attempts to enter the writing and editing world, I started to reflect on my career goals. I loved environmental education but didn’t see myself doing it forever. When I looked back at my experiences, it was my time abroad that shaped me and my path the most, particularly my time in Australia as a college student and then later my time in Southeast Asia as a traveler and volunteer. Recognizing this, as well as my passion for global understanding and learning, I realized that I could advise students and help them have similar amazing and positive experiences. The School for Field Studies was a perfect way to combine my interests in environmental education and international education. Luckily, I got the job.
What are my first impressions of the country?
Well, they aren’t my first impressions, but they are my first impressions this time around. I lived in this part of the world for four and a half months in early 2009, when I studied abroad with the School for International Training’s Natural and Cultural Ecology program. With SIT, I spent a great deal of my time in Cairns, but traveled around the Atherton Tablelands, along the Great Barrier Reef, and to Townsville. When I flew into the Cairns airport just over a week ago and looked out the tiny window of the plane and saw the coastal rainforest-covered mountains, I almost cried—I felt like I was home again. With the students, I have been traveling around to places I visited four and a half years ago: Lake Eacham, Yungaburra, Atherton, and other spots in the rainforests of the Atherton Tablelands. It’s all coming back to me, bit by bit—Australian slang, instant coffee, the use of tea towels and electric tea kettles—but I still haven’t figured out how to order a coffee here. Simply put, my heart is thrilled to be back in this place I came to know several years ago.
What are my first impressions of the field station?
It was actually much more interesting to hear the students’ first impression of the field station. After picking them up at the airport and driving for about an hour in the vans, we climbed the windy Gillies highway and then made a quick right turn…into the forest. One of the professors has referred to this as “the hole”—that place where you can see just a hint of a dirt road engulfed by rainforest plants. The entire van full of students gasped in surprise when we made the turn—a reaction I did not have. I guess I expected to enter the forest.
When I arrived, the Centre itself seemed smaller than I had imagined, but after spending a few days, I realized there was everything we need and not much more. The main building includes staff offices (I share mine with the Site Manager, and the SAM before me left all kinds of goodies for me to sort through, including some dark chocolate-covered coffee beans); a common room with couches, bean bags, blankets, and books for students; a computer room and library for students; a kitchen; and verandas with outdoor seating for dining, five-star gym equipment, cubbies, washer and dryer, dish-washing and food-serving stations, etc.
What is much better than the Centre is the Dongas, the place where I am living. It is a double-wide trailer with a veranda that stretches the length of the building, overlooking a clearing in the rainforest. I can watch the sun set from the veranda, and I can section off my own private portion if I like. But my roommates are pretty awesome, so there’s no need for that. I live with the three program interns; we have a shared living area and kitchen, but I have my own room (with a queen-sized bed, oh boy!). Actually, I have two rooms and my own bathroom. Pictures of my veranda view will be forthcoming.
And the time I finally realized how precious this piece of land is: when we went on a site walk the day after the students arrived. Just seconds from the main building, one climbs down a steep, muddy trail into the rainforest. I live IN the rainforest. Climbing palms, strangler figs, lianas, tree ferns, pandanus, ginger—all of the wonderful vegetation I learned about as a student in 2009. It’s the dry season now, but it’s been raining here and there every day, which is fine with me, because the rainforest is that much more beautiful in the rain.
What do I think the biggest challenge will be for me this semester both academically and culturally?
Academically, well, I have to write my Masters thesis. How am I going to write my Masters thesis when I live IN the rainforest?
Culturally—I am homesick for my birds back at VINS. I really truly miss them.
What am I looking forward to most about the semester?
I am very much looking forward to my students’ excitement as they learn and see wildlife—it’s like I get to experience that wonder all over again through their eyes. I am looking forward to traveling and visiting the places I’ve called home—Townsville and Cairns. I am looking forward to warmer weather… it’s the tail-end of winter, now, and I have been feeling pretty chilly.
Three words that best describe how I am feeling right now:
Grateful, learning, home