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Student Travels: Exploring the Yucatan
The day after I graduated from high school I boarded my very first airplane for an academic field experience in Belize. Having grown up in rural Missouri in a modest home, international travel just wasn’t an opportunity we could afford much less an experience a young person could expect. Yet, thanks to a fantastic high school biology teacher, I found myself bound for a Central American country I knew very little about. I returned from that trip a very different person. I returned smaller; with a sense that the world is bigger, more complex, and much more welcoming than I ever imagined. I knew if I ever really wanted to make sense of my place in the world, I’d have to start seeing it.
More than twenty years later, I have now traveled to nearly 40 countries on five continents and I still return from each international trip in awe of the places I visit and more in love with the place I call home. These days, I have the unique opportunity to invite my students to join me as I meet with wonderful people around the world. In January of this year, I departed Ashland, Oregon to live and work in Akumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico. I had two main objectives. First, I wanted to improve my Spanish language skills through long-term immersion. Second, I wanted to work with local research groups to better understand the impacts of a major environmental problem in the region.
The Caribbean has long been home to a group of macroalgae species known as sargassum. They form an essential habitat for numerous fish species and help mitigate coastal erosion. However, about 5 years ago the population of sargassum began to explode. Today, there are days in the Mexican Caribbean when you cannot see the ocean and in some populated cities, there is no way to visit the beach at all without assistance from bulldozers creating paths down to the water.
The problem stems from an increase in nutrients in warm waters. Researchers are still trying to make sense out of the specifics here, but it appears agricultural fertilizers from across North and South America are making their way into the Caribbean causing the abnormal growth and extent of sargassum. I worked with a range of collaborators, but my specific interest and work related to finding ways to quantify the total economic impact resulting from lost tourism. For seven months I worked with teams of researchers and will continue to work with colleagues from Mexico as I contribute remotely.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the trip was the opportunity that came this summer to host a group of SOU students in Mexico. In late June, my colleague, Leslie Eldridge, arrived with 14 outstanding SOU students to learn more about the culture and environment of the Yucatan region of Mexico. Joined by local guides and experts, we toured the region for 11 days visiting my field sites, Mayan ruins, beautiful colonial cities, and many many wonderful people. While we visited a few of the regional highlights such as Chichen Itza; I felt the most meaningful academic moments were the remarkable questions that our students asked as we traveled from place to place. The questions reminded me of those I had asked myself 20 years ago in Belize. They are the same sorts of questions that drive me today.
I love what I do! Southern Oregon University is a wonderful place to learn and grow and while most days I take my students to explore the wonderful region surrounding our campus, some days, it is worth going a bit further!
On our last morning in Mexico, we gathered together in the lobby of a hotel in Playa Del Carmen to reflect on how we had changed. As each of us chatted about what we had learned, and how we wanted to go forward as better people, I noticed several themes: We are so much more alike than we are different! The decisions we make in Oregon have an impact on the people who live in Quintana Roo, Mexico! It is within my power to make a difference!
I love what I do! Southern Oregon University is a wonderful place to learn and grow and while most days I take my students to explore the wonderful region surrounding our campus, some days, it is worth going a bit further! I have already begun planning an opportunity for SOU students to join me in Ecuador next year as we explore both the Andes and the Amazon together. As long as I am able, I’m going to keep doing what my high school biology teacher did for me. I’m going to create opportunities for students to really find their place in the world. I’m going to just keep reminding all those I work with that we really can make a difference in the world and that wonderful people around the world are working with us!
Learn more about Environmental Science & Policy degrees at sou.edu/envirostudies
Story by Dr. Vincent M. Smith, SOU Environmental Science & Policy Professor