Six female underrepresented students and a teacher from Virginia’s Louisa County High School traveled to Botswana this past summer, where they learned about animal and public health research under the guidance of a Virginia Tech professor and students. The group spent two-and-a-half weeks at the Centre for African Resources, Animals, Communities, and Land Use (CARACAL), a nongovernmental organization established to promote ecosystem health and sustainable livelihoods for communities in Southern Africa.

With financial support from the National Science Foundation, the international education program was orchestrated by Kathleen Alexander, professor of wildlife in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and her graduate student Madalyn Fox, an alumna of Louisa County High School who worked with Alexander to make the course a reality.

“This was a dream come true for me to help young minority students from my high school,” Fox said. “I know how hard it can be to develop confidence and pursue your dreams, and I wanted to change that for these young girls.”

The students traveled to Botswana to gain firsthand experience in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. Yolanda Speed, Louisa County School teacher and co-sponsor of Destined Daughters, a school club for underrepresented girls, accompanied the girls, saying that just flying to Africa had a profound impact on them.

“Landing in South Africa had an immediately positive, overwhelming effect on them,” she said. “They were like, ‘I can’t believe I’m in this place, having this experience.’ And arriving in Botswana just magnified that reaction.”

The students participated in all aspects of the work taking place under Alexander at CARACAL, which she co-founded in 2000, including helping injured animals, working in the laboratories, and participating in research and educational opportunities that were ongoing during their visit. The center’s work embodies the One Health concept of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally to attain optimal health for people, animals, and the environment.

For Alexander, a faculty member in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and an affiliate of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the students’ visit was also an opportunity to give Virginia Tech undergraduate students enrolled in her summer wildlife immersion course a chance to practice their mentorship skills with a new generation of students (see related story).

“I wanted the undergraduates to be engaged in service to other younger students,” Alexander said. “Mentoring is an important life experience: there is nothing more powerful than realizing that you can inspire, that you have a knowledge that you can share with the world. Mentoring allows you to start to recognize your capacity to contribute to the wider world.”

For the high school students, a highlight of the trip was going on a safari through Chobe National Park, where they saw African elephants and other animals in their natural environment. Another highlight was sampling the diversity of traditional foods, including ‘seswaa,’ a meat stew that is the national dish of Botswana, and ‘pap,’ a porridge made from ground maize.

Fox was one of the first undergraduate students to participate in Alexander’s underrepresented STEM educational program in Botswana, also funded by the National Science Foundation. She is now a master’s student in public health, conducting research under Alexander in Botswana. She understands firsthand the transformational power of this type of international experience.

“It is definitely a humbling, life-changing experience,” Fox said. “It’s an opportunity like no other to interact with wildlife, to see how wildlife intertwines with human life here. Back in America you might see a deer or two, but in Botswana you’ll see a warthog at the airport and then a snake or a mongoose or an elephant on the drive to the laboratory. It’s a more active interaction here.”

When asked why it is crucial to expose underrepresented students to STEM experiences, Speed stressed the value of being exposed to the wider world and to situations where there are no easy solutions.

“I was really proud of them,” Speed said. “The students rose up; they leveled up to not being just high school students anymore. They jumped right into working with the college students, and they were gracious and appreciative throughout the experience.”

“For me, this experience was about leadership,” she continued. “It was about showing these girls that they could do something like this, that they could be in a new culture and have experiences where they were challenged and come out stronger for the effort.”

Alexander added, “We are creating our next generation of minority leaders in science, changing the face of science and our ability to contribute to international challenges in public and animal health.”

Louisa County High School will send a second group of underrepresented students to Alexander’s research center in Botswana next summer.

Written by David Fleming