Over winter break, 26 students and two faculty members traveled to New Zealand for a three-week study abroad course called Sustaining the Natural Environment and Human Societies in New Zealand. The Department of Geography course focuses on cultural perspectives related to the three pillars of sustainability: environment, social equity, and economics.

“This type of experience allows students to gain knowledge and perspectives about society and the environment that can’t be attained in a classroom,” explained Assistant Professor Luke Juran. “Studying abroad gets students out of their comfort zone, facilitates personal growth, and forges memories and friendships that can last a lifetime.”

Beginning their journey in Christchurch to survey earthquake damage, the group visited several towns, wildlife reserves, national forests, and coastal areas on the South Island. Throughout the trip, students explored topics such as ecology, geology, glaciology, and New Zealand’s efforts to promote renewable energy. They saw the firsthand effects of climate change during a visit to see glaciers and explored the effects of tourism on the environment. “I want to study wildlife around the globe, so this trip was the first step in seeing a different culture directly,” said Miranda Anderson, a junior wildlife conservation major.

The group visited several farms to hear from guest lecturers and observe how farmers are promoting sustainability in sheep and dairy farming. “I wasn’t expecting that because that’s not what I think about when I think about sustainability,” said Katie Herring, a senior majoring in biology and English. “I think about recycling or conserving trees, but at these farms we learned about how New Zealand is using the dairy and meat industry as a way of being sustainable.”

They also hiked and kayaked in several national parks, including Mount Cook National Park, which boasts the highest mountain in New Zealand, and swam with the diminutive Hector’s dolphins in Akaroa Harbour.

“The students were highly motivated and dedicated to the sustainability theme,” noted Professor Jim Campbell. “On one of the last days, they took it upon themselves to discuss how they plan to live out the ideas of sustainability they had studied during the trip. They are genuinely dedicated to this type of thinking.”

In keeping with the theme of sustainability, students also engaged in a service project at Lord’s Bush Scenic Reserve, where they assisted the New Zealand Department of Conservation in planting 320 endemic trees. The students were provided with the GPS coordinates for the reserve so they can use Google Earth to watch the trees grow over time. “Being able to volunteer in a country almost 8,000 miles away and help people there was really great,” said Herring. “It really gives you a sense of community across the entire globe.”

Juran added, “New Zealand’s natural environments are unique, and the approaches of its citizens towards preserving them offer valuable lessons for our own lives. Earth and its natural environments are resilient but vulnerable. We observed how humans assert a dominant role in ecological health, which in turn has feedbacks that can either facilitate or degrade the lives of humans.”