First-year students study abroad: Adventures in Puerto Rico
RELEASED: February 7, 2008
An Introduction to Puerto Rico
Like last year, we began our trip at the El Yunque rain forest, one of the largest remaining rain forests in the Eastern Caribbean, with the highest density of frogs of any place in the world. We were guided on a 12-mile trek through the forest, which included a near-vertical climb of 400 feet to a waterfall surrounded by one of the few remaining patches of virgin forest in the Caribbean.
This year's class was the first to explore the Island of Culebra, our next stop after leaving El Yunque. Culebra is a small island with only a few thousand residents, and it's only 12 miles from the U.S. Virgin Islands. There we explored nesting beaches of leatherback sea turtles, seagrass beds, mangroves and coral reefs. We explored coral reefs and observed many activities that most people, not even most marine scientists, ever observe, including the dawn and dusk migration of French grunts (a type of fish) and the dawn spawning of yellowtail damselfish.
One of the most sobering aspects of the trip was the discovery that the reef off of Carlos Rosario beach, which was once one of the "prize" reefs of Puerto Rico, was dead due to a massive bleaching event that occurred in 2005. I think it made clear to the students that reefs are impacted by local events (such as eutrophication, an increase in chemical nutrients, and sedimentation) as well as global events, in this case rising sea temperatures. So the lifestyle we live in the continental United States can contribute to the decline of coral reefs. It's a "small world," indeed.
The final part of the trip exposed students to an important part of Puerto Rican culture: the street festival of San Sebastian. This is part of the Christmas holiday season and is similar to the Carnival celebrations held throughout the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America.
I have been running field courses for 14 years and have even included high school students and teachers, and the more I do it, the more I see the importance of moving outside traditional "classroom" learning at all levels of our educational system.
El Yunque Rainforest
Arriving at Culebra
After a rocky trip down a dirt road pitted with several pot holes, we found the perfect beach that came to be our regular snorkeling sight over the next couple of days. That evening, we decided to go snorkeling at dusk and explore the reef.
It seemed like some sort of adventure into the unknown, as we adjusted our masks around our eyes and, wearing flippers, goose-stepped awkwardly toward the water. It was easier to back slowly into the water rather than attempt to walk forward and risk tripping on the ends of our flippers and doing a face plant. Even then, gravel managed to leak into the empty pockets, lodging in the most uncomfortable places as we dove into the water and started swimming out to sea. Eventually, as the light slowly dwindled, we resorted to scanning the coral for different species of fish with our flashlights.
At night, the coral appears to loom before you, dotted with inky black sea urchins with protruding spines and pale shadows of fish. Bug-eyed squirrel fish dart into miniature caves away from the light. And when the fish refused to come out, we floated on our backs and looked up at the multitude of stars glittering overhead.
The next day, Dr. Sikkel divided us into groups and assigned each a particular species of fish to observe and record behavior and movement patterns, as well as the time of day they're active around the coral. During the day, the water is clear as glass, and tourists watched amused as we trouped by with our snorkel gear and clipboards with waterproof paper. The coral was teeming with hoards of fish of all different sizes, colors and shapes. Rainbow-colored parrot fish swam lazily toward the coral only to be chased away by black damsel fish half their size. Sea fans waved back and forth in the current, and bright blue tang flitted about in cavernous canyons in the coral. Dr. Sikkel caught several species of fish to process in our search for parasites and a possible connection between species behavior and time of day.
We arrived back at the beach house where we doused the fish in fresh water and then filtered the water through a mesh to trap the parasites that we then blasted into a Petri dish. We added red food coloring and filtered the contents again. The first catch was entirely free of parasites except for a fat isopod that looked like a swollen maggot with groping legs and pinchers clinging to one unfortunate fish.
Floating in the buoyant waters off of Culebra watching fish dart to and fro in a colorful marine wonderland, we not only learned about a field that might never have caught our interest in a classroom, but we also experienced a trip of a lifetime—a trip where we discovered how to go beyond our limits of learning and do things we might never have done if given the choice before taking the class.
"The Centre term trip to Puerto Rico was absolutely amazing," said classmate Regina Basoni. "Not because we were in a lush country hiking in the rainforest and snorkeling on a beautiful island, but because of how much we were able to learn. Sure, we learned a lot about the El Yunque Rainforest and about the types of fish in Culebra and their activity patterns, but most of all we learned a lot about ourselves. We learned to not only survive, but also to excel in a different environment. And we learned how to step outside our comfort zones and experience once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, like climbing a 400-foot waterfall barehanded and barefoot. It became clearer to us what life is about—learning through new friendships, brilliant teachers, beautiful atmospheres and difficult, new situations. I feel changed for the better after this trip, not only through my new knowledge of biology and Puerto Rico, but also through the ways I've changed into a new person who will be more prepared for the world.”
These final days in an island paradise were when the most bonding took place between the members of our class. Instead of simply being students, stuck in a class we were less than thrilled about, we were field biologists and, most importantly, friends. As stated by classmate Ashton Hupman, we became companeros. The things we experienced together brought us closer than any of us could've imagined was possible. These are days and invaluable experiences none of us will forget.
Our Last Day in San Juan
According to the locals, the festival de la Calle de San Sebastian is similar to Mardi Gras. As soon as we arrived in old San Juan it was clear where the festivities were because the area was overwhelmingly consumed with excitement. Street vendors packed the streets with bold jewelry, paintings of the cityscape and carved wooden Wise Men. Christmas lights were sprinkled atop trees and on the lampposts, along with decorative poinsettias. Stages were scattered about the festival with dancers who wore brightly colored costumes and danced to Salsa music while the audience sang along to every word. Whole families danced together in little groups, the grandparents with the toddlers, all celebrating together.
My friends and I were in awe at the crowds of people just dancing to the music and having a good time. I think we agreed that we could all get used to the island life, as we attempted to mimic the dancing of the locals and as we shopped for souvenirs just beside the stone boardwalk that overlooked the famous old forts of San Juan.
Our final meeting with our class as a whole was a discussion that was held on the top of our hotel so that we could see the entire city. We all talked as a group about what we learned by living in El Yunque and on Culebra. We also talked about what we learned about our future and ourselves. Unlike some class discussions where only some people are paying attention and the contributions seem robotic and rehearsed, our conversations flowed and everyone was eager to make their statements because we all were so passionate about our trip.
Even though it's likely that most of us will not go into field research indefinitely, I think that what we all learned about ourselves, and the friendships we made will last longer than any facts we have to memorize in our general education courses. I know that it definitely changed my opinion of science, a subject I've always been good at but have never been interested in for a career. Now I'm eager to take biology and chemistry courses at Centre in the future.Sitting atop the white stucco roof, lounging on chaises and reclining in the sun, talking about what we thought about our futures while being able to take in the view of the entire city and the cerulean blue waters of the Caribbean, I came to a conclusion. I couldn't believe that this was a class I was taking, and yet I had learned more that week than I had at Centre so far because we were immersed, practically tossed, into the Hispanic world of Puerto Rico, and that's something the 15 of us were lucky enough to experience.
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