Wilderness and Civilization 2018

By Kyra Searcy

The opportunity to explore land use and perspectives in Montana through GLI happened to be through the intensive field course which gave me a minor in Wilderness Studies. This course occurred primarily during fall 2017 in the form of field trips between 1 and 10 days long, with a winter session art class, as well as an internship in a local water education organization, lecture series, and 4 day river course on the upper Missouri in the spring of 2018. This section of river is designated as wild and scenic, which nicely tied up the loose ends in understanding how land agencies manage across ownerships and policy changes. Throughout the year, our group was asked what we wanted to learn, and my classes were formed around those areas of focus. It gave us the chance to truly dive into things we cared about and ignore topics which we have already covered in other classes.

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Discussing Fire Regimes and interactions with homes/ people with Dave Campbell

My global theme is Natural Resources and Sustainability. The challenge was looking at resource management across land ownership in culturally rich places within Montana. Through my fall semester classes I was able to study these connections between historical land use to modern day land use through the lenses of ecology, policy, literature, art and discussion with leaders. We had amazing guest lecturers as well as professors who were experts in their fields. When we weren’t on campus, we traveled to a mine in Libby, a restoration site in the Mission Mountains Wilderness, a working ranch with conservation easements in Square Butte, the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness Study Area, the Yaak Valley Forest Council, a working homestead, and the CSKT Government. They worked to connect the dots between disciplines so that we were able to address large multifaceted issues that land managers face today in Montana.

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The Turek Ranch and Conservation Easement, Square Butte Montana

One of the most interesting and important perspectives that we looked at while on our field studies were those of Native People in Montana. Tribes have a deep understanding of the ecology and history of the lands that white settlers such as myself have only the slightest knowledge of. These traditional and ecological understandings of place have informed my own value of establishing yourself in a location and truly learning about it before making decisions that will affect it. We live in an age where communication across a nation can happen in minutes, and a decision that is made in a faraway capital can in turn influence other nations decisions on land management. Because these discussions can happen so quickly between people very far away, place-based decision making can sometimes be less informed and more catered towards whatever interests’ get the ear of a politician. I never knew how difficult it is to lobby for an endangered species or to change policy in the Forest Service Manual. These changes are slow, while decisions higher up can happen quickly and completely alter the future of a place. My classmates and I felt strongly about supporting indigenous communities so we attended the Rally for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante Monuments in protest of President Trump’s decision to minimize and remove protections. After learning about large societal issues we wanted to actually act on one. This was one of the most powerful moments of my beyond the classroom experience by far. To be in the presence of various Tribal Elders coming together for the first time to protest the continuous neglect and assault of corporate and governmental interests on their sacred lands was something I will never forget. While we focused on small communities of native tribes, loggers, ranchers, miners, and wilderness rangers in Montana, I was simultaneously thinking about small groups across the world struggling to make decisions that benefit their local community while also benefiting the global one. I found it ironic that in an age of increased access to communication, we aren’t getting the word out about some of the issues in the wildest of habitats in Montana. It made me want to focus more on collaboration between agencies, organizations, local people and foundations which have ties to politics. We were able to see some collaborative groups and understand their struggles and triumphs which seemed really optimistic in the current political climate for land management. The most valuable thing that we can do in a time as tricky as this is to work together and draw upon our diversity of perspectives and understanding to make decisions that influence a generation of land stewards who are connected to the land and confident on their role in it. I am truly grateful to take all of these points with me into my career as a Conservationist.

Trading the Rockies for Highlands

My beyond the classroom experience took place during the fall semester of 2017. I traveled to the University of Dundee in Dundee, Scotland. The area is characterized by luscious green forests, rough mountainous landscapes and beautiful ocean views. Dundee is an hour north from the capital, Edinburgh, and only twenty minutes from the prestigious campus, the University of St. Andrews. The region is a special place in Scotland, holding its own unique accent (the Dundonian accent), which is among the hardest for Americans to interpret. Though the accents are tough to understand sometimes, the people of Scotland are among the kindest and most caring in the world.

At my host university I took a variety of classes connecting to my major and GLI global theme. My major is Physical Geography with a minor in computer science and certificate in Geographical information systems (GIS) and the global theme I am apart of is Technology and Society. The global theme I chose focuses on the how organizations harness technology and data and acknowledges how important technology is as a tool to inform and teach people new ideas across the world. This theme relates to my beyond the classroom experience because while abroad I took classes that required research and data modeling to explain societal differences in health, behavior and economic inequalities. The professional and academic skills I acquired during my experience included many field surveys and expeditions to grow my skills in obtaining data. I also secured my knowledge in modeling and presenting data to others. On many occasions my experience required that I become a leader, my course mates and I often worked in teams to gather and present data, so it required someone to step up and take the lead. Becoming a leader was a new concept for me but was formed and structured due to the GLI Leadership retreat I attended before I left for my beyond the classroom experience.

This experience pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me grow professionally and academically. The curriculum was much different than in the United States so gaining an outside perspective on the way other cultures learn was incredibly enriching. Among the most enriching experiences I had was taking a field trip to the Scottish Highlands to obtain geomorphological data on a former glaciated landscape. There we gathered data from the landscape to build a map representing how the glacier might have looked 11,000 years ago. Through adventures like that field trip and spontaneous adventures in Scotland, this experience provided me with amazing adventures and lifelong friends. I will hold on to the memories forever. If you or anyone you know is ever thinking about visiting Scotland, do it. It will be the best decision you’ve ever made.

 

Buenos Aires: The City that Constantly Evolves

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By Christa Street

Studying abroad is the epitome of independence. The confidence and knowledge gained from living abroad in a multifaceted culture is an invaluable experience that has made me a better, more fearless, college student. Buenos Aires, the city I selected for my GLI experience, is a diverse and intense city, and I gained just as much knowledge outside the classroom as I did behind a desk.

Inside the classroom, I gained knowledge of social inequality and human rights conditions throughout Latin America through classes of international and regional politics. Discussing the current state of American politics to Argentinian students sparked debate and passionate discussions, which helped me to understand a variety of Latin American perspectives regarding social issues throughout the Americas.

Outside the classroom, I met people from across Latin America who had left their respective countries due to poor economic conditions or political instability. Protests advocating for the rights of indigenous communities, as well as demonstrations against Argentina’s military dictatorship, which ended 40 years ago, were commonplace in a city whose citizens are passionate for social change. My host mother survived the dictatorship and told me stories of the state of fear and oppression she lived when she was a teenager. The variety of interactions and stories I experienced put my GLI theme of social inequality and human rights into context.

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Integration into the rapid dynamics and vibrant culture of Buenos Aires challenged me to live in a way I had never known before. Five months in Buenos Aires changed my entire lifestyle and leadership skills simply by making me a more confident person. I didn’t learn only from professors, students, locals and foreign residents. I taught myself how to be adaptable while living abroad, and that is a skill I will depend on for the rest of my life.

From White Bark Pines to Prairie Dogs

I spent the fall of 2017 traveling over 1,500 miles throughout central Montana in a van, in a kayak, or on my own two feet with The Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI). Central Montana is an ecologically and culturally distinct landscape. I wanted to experience diverse environments and the people intimately connected with them. I hoped to gain a more personalized and less academic perspective on our current global ecological crisis in a localized fashion. I was constantly challenged by my instructors, peers, guest speakers, and our reading material.

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Everything I expected from WRFI was exceeded. I felt ultra comfortable in the woods, on wild rivers, and in the prairie, even spending a full 24 hours completely alone in the back- country. Two months of living in a tent together, and a group of 10 strangers quickly becomes your family. Daily classes on mountain tops and along rivers allowed me to engage deeply with material and my peers. I had the chance to think critically about why I had the point of view I did. Something so simple, but important for anyone.

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One specific issue challenged myself and the group more than any other. We were discussing the pros and cons of a proposed mine outside of White Sulphur Springs, Montana. On one hand this mine threatens one of the most iconic rivers in Montana, the Smith River. On the other hand, it would bring jobs to one of the poorest counties in the country and is heralded as one of the most advanced mines of its kind. We met with both mine supporters and opponents. We visited the site of the mine and the Smith River. We felt the need in the community for this project, the hope it brought, but we also felt the beauty and magnificence of the Smith River and its surrounding ecosystem. At the end of the day, we were conflicted, despite being well-informed. But that is the crux of complicated issues, its more than the facts, our values also play in integral role in our decisions about how we think the world should look.

At the end of WRFI I found myself thinking that all environmental issues aren’t simply about landscapes and ecosystems, but the human layer that is inevitably nested within them as well. There are no black and white issues, good and bad guys. There are humans trying to provide the best lives for themselves, their families, and hopefully the earth.

Of Heather and Hollows

August had been spent charging over 18000 foot mountains, trying to surf off the coast of an ancient Peruivan fishing village, and understanding climate change in the physical and dangerous context of melting glaciers. I “relaxed” at home in Sacramento with four days of hiking, family, and re-packing before crossing the Atlantic for an extended stay on the Emerald Isle. When I hugged my dad at the airport I expected to cry; to feel shaken; to be apprehensive. I instead felt very tired but very ready for the challenge that lay before me. Peru was vacation; Ireland was meant to be life in another country.

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The River Lee, swollen by the tide, reflects a cloudy sky over the Cork City Center

Arriving late in Dublin, and taking a bus for three hours into Cork, my first hours in Ireland were dark and characteristically, rainy. I woke up the next morning and moved into my apartment. Small and modern with two roommates from France and one from Chicago I felt comfortable and excited to have my own space. We were across from the train station on the north side of town and roughly a thirty minutes walk from University College Cork (UCC). Walking became my main form of transportation. I explored the city’s many side streets and alleyways on foot. I quickly learned to fear for my life in the presence of Cork drivers given their unspoken vendetta against pedestrians.

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The Main Quadrangle of the UCC campus

Home in Montana I actively enjoy rock climbing and ultimate frisbee and it was important to me that I continued these sports abroad. I engaged with the UCC Mountaineering (hiking/climbing) Club and played for UCC Ultimate, using both groups as opportunities to make friends and travel the country. UCC mountaineering hiked all across the southern half of the island and UCC Ultimate made visits to several of the country’s largest cities, competing against every team in the nation at one tournament in the city of Galway. Sport and experience are universal mediums to communicate through and I quickly forged relationships I plan to maintain and grow in to the future despite the miles between us now.

 

Understanding the universality of our activity translated to our universality as people and for me at least, made the process of making friends much easier. The label of being American was joked about often in the best humor and I came to view it objectively; rather than overly present American stereotypes I used them to learn how to fit in, assimilate, become one of the lads. I proudly wore the UCC kit in our tournaments and tried to love the Irish landscape as much as I did my native Sierra Nevada and surrogate Bitterroots.

 

Full of steep hills, heather, hollows, and plenty of sheep; my mountain experiences in Ireland were the arguably the most important part of my time in Ireland with respect to understanding the history and depth of Irish culture. While influenced by the same modern music and similar pop culture as Americans, the under lying nature of the Irish comes from their diverse origins and sense of place. I learned that being Irish is trickier than it might seem as many of the first communities in Ireland were Norse populations which had migrated to the island seeking easier living. These mixed with native clans and a continued stream of people from Normandy and Wales to create a diverse and prosperous population on the island. The Irish countryside is a highly fought over landscape. The county of Tipperary, just north of Cork, saw many wars for regional power, religious independence, and national sovereignty. The Irish have fought to be where they are today and are proud of their heritage, both nationally and on a county level. Just as the US has regional accents and stereotypes, so does Ireland; despite it being one – eighth the size of Montana.

 

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Rural communities nestled within the Irish mountains

My global theme and challenge is Natural Resources and Sustainability and I focused this while abroad by taking courses in conservation biology and wetland ecology at UCC. I hoped to gain a sense for European views on ecosystem management and what values lay where with regard to natural resources in Europe. Much of what occurs in the European Union is guided by EU Environmental Management Directives which work multiple parts in assessing, monitoring, restoring, and maintaining the quality of soils, water, and biodiversity. Whether these are actually followed is open to interpretation and the extent to which the objectives are actually applied. Environmental issues increasingly address a social paradigm which can often place agricultural practices at odds with standards for environmental quality. The extreme length of time which farmers have been practicing their trade in Ireland contributes to their continuation of grazing practices, but may soon have to adapt to a changing climate which is affecting even Ireland’s ceaseless rains.

 

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Cork offers a dramatic sunrise in early October

Unlike most of the exchange students I met at UCC, I stayed for the holidays! I was very lucky to spend the holidays in Tipperary Town, Tipperary, Ireland and was welcomed to a warm household with plenty of Guinness and classic Irish scenery. The nearby mountains range was known as the Galtyees and during my stay, my friend Alan and I crossed the range’s ridge during a white out. Indeed, Ireland does receive a fair bit of snow!

 

I was lucky enough to have some friends from the University of Montana abroad in Ireland and France while I was in Cork. Together we traveled in Ireland and celebrated Thanksgiving, making home feel a little closer. We visited Belfast and learned about the city’s great industrial, maritime history and the Troubles; religious conflict which still steams in parts of the country.

The opportunity to travel and live in Ireland was the most important experience I have had while attending the University of Montana. It made me aware of myself in a new light and allowed my to refocus my personal and academic growth. Many people describe their time abroad as a constant whirlwind and they leave feeling traveled and worldly; but for me the moments of reflection did not come in crashing waves and grand ah-ha moments. They came in the quiet spaces of daily life which occur when you have the time to live in and understand a place so wholesomely you know the local rhythms by feel. When the everyday feels like an adventure you are living right.

As they say in Cork, thanks a million!

Pure New Zealand

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Last fall I had the opportunity to study abroad at Massey University, just outside Auckland, New Zealand–land of the Kiwis. When I first got to New Zealand I was overwhelmed. I had a huge 70lb bag, a 70L backpack, a small roller bag, and another personal size backpack. And little 135lb me was trying to take all of this through customs without the use of a “trolley” because when the kind woman who worked at the airport asked me if I wanted a “trolley” I was like no what the heck is a “trolley.” I definitely don’t need one of those… But guess what a trolley was. Yep, that’s right, a luggage cart. It probably would have helped considering how much I was trying to carry, and especially since right after I turned down the trolley offer my 70lb bag toppled over right in front of me, and the extra momentum I had from my pack caused me to nearly trip right over it.

After collecting my tent and hiking boots that had to be inspected by Biosecurity, I wandered to what looked like an information desk and asked the embarrassing question, “so how do I get a taxi to the hotel I’m staying at tonight?” I got a confused stare from the woman at the counter, who replied,”Just walk outside and ask for a taxi.” Yeah, apparently it was that simple.

So I walk out of the airport and see row after row of taxis that stretch beyond the eye could see…”how do I choose?” I think to myself. So I ask one of the millions of taxi drivers before me for a ride, and they respond in quick foreign tongue that I should really just take the bus because it’s much cheaper. Okay, that was really of them to suggest that and not take my money. But now the question is ‘what bus do I get on and how do I pay for it,’ because at this point I have no New Zealand cash on me. So I walk to a ticket dispenser machine and see that it requires coins to purchase a ticket. I have no coins. Back to the taxis I go. Taxi driver says no, no, no, take the bus. I say AH but I can’t for the life of me get a ticket! Lost, confused, stressed me continues to try and acquire a bus ticket. Then the bus driver gets off of her bus and angrily shoves coins in the slot to produce, huzzah, a ticket! I proceed to get on the bus with all my luggage, but no one assists me with lifting my 70lb purple monster of a bag on to the luggage rack. But I was like, nah, its fine I’ll just hold onto it, my hotel is only 2 blocks away.

Well, what I was not prepared for was the most insane bus ride of my life complete with about 10 roundabouts entered at what I’m sure was this bus’s maximum speed. So I’m standing in the middle of the bus, it’s just me and this other kid with an afro who is also studying abroad, and I’m trying to have a nice conversation with him because apparently we’re both staying at the same hotel. But the bus is taking sharp turns and spins around the roundabouts and I’m holding on to those yellow hanging straps buses have for my dear life. And my purple monster of a bag is rolling every-which-way as the bus takes sharp turns—and its smashing into me and dragging me all across the bus. And my heavy 70L backpack displaced my center of gravity and every time the bus swayed, I nearly toppled over trying to keep my balance while wrestling with the great purple monster. In the midst of this chaos, I’m still trying to act as natural as possible and have a conversation with this guy. It was a disaster. My face was flushed, my pits were sweaty, and I swear I was on the verge of tears, but I fought it off and kept a smile on my face while I tried to continue the friendly small talk. But by the end of it, afro kid was just laughing at me, and I had made a complete fool of myself. I did, however, manage to make it to my hotel with all of my luggage. I swung open the door to my room, aggressively shoved those bags inside, and threw myself onto the bed. Tomorrow would be a better day, and holy heck at least I was finally in New Zealand!

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Cape Reinga

Despite the rough start, I had the most incredible time during my 6-month study abroad. I loved my ecology courses, I made the most amazing friends, and I got to travel what is arguably the most beautiful country in the world with them. I learned so much about New Zealand’s sustainability efforts policies, and had the opportunity to meet with the Director of Sustainability at Massey, John Shimwell, who has maintained contact with me and is helping my GLI cohort and I implement our capstone project on Massey’s campus. Meeting him and seeing how excited he was about working with our program was wonderful, and we ended up having a wholesome discussion about sustainability efforts in New Zealand and how they compare with those utilized in various parts of the US. Moments like this one, as well as the continued contact we have had moving forward with my GLI project, make me so grateful for my abroad experience. Additionally, on a more personal side, my ecology courses allowed me to see first-hand the incredible appreciation Kiwis have for their environment in general. The many field labs and trips provided me the opportunity to both learn the intricacies of conservation and management concerns in New Zealand, and throughout my travels I saw how their Department of Conservation worked to maintain Natural Parks and promote increased awareness and preservation of their beautiful ecosystems within the ‘tramping’ (hiking) community.

My kiwi friends were so loving and welcoming and wanted us to have an incredible experience. They introduced me to tea time, late nights on the town, wharf jumping into the ocean in the dead of night with stars lighting up the night sky. I will always remember the first time my Kiwi friends taught me how to “properly” swim in the ocean. The rush of putting my hands together and diving under a white-crested wave that towered 4-5 feet above my head. The feeling of plunging under the surface of the water while the waves crashed over my back and rolled off the tips of my toes—it sent a thrilling, tingling sensation throughout my whole body and I couldn’t get enough of it. That’s probably one of the things I miss the most. Salty hair, itchy eyes—who cares about those when you’re in the most beautiful body of water being pulled and pushed and pummeled by raw powerful waves.

For the most part I traveled the country with my American friends because they had the same drive and passion to do so. Throughout my time there, we ended up buying two different beat-up cars (because the first one broke down on us!), and had the time of our lives road-tripping throughout the island nation. Cape Reinga, Tane Mahuta, Kai Iwi lakes, Raglan, Bay of Islands, Pakiri–all of these were just words on a map, but we turned them into places filled with unique and special memories that brought us all closer than I could ever have imagined. I will always feel like my words inadequately express how incredible my time in New Zealand was because of them. New Zealand is just a place in the world. Beautiful, yes, but in the words of Alexander Supertramp “happiness is only real when shared.” When I think about my time in New Zealand, I’m typically brought back to these memories of driving through winding country roads. The windows are rolled down, Kesha’s blowing her lungs out hitting that high note in “Praying.” There are cows and sheep to either of us standing among the rolling hills of green pasture, staring at us as we drive while they chew in a sideways motion. If I’m not the one driving, I’m sitting in the back with my feet up on the console looking out the window. We didn’t talk to each other much on these long drives, but we did listen to music. At first I thought it was kind of strange, but now whenever I listen to the playlist of songs we rocked out to in Ricky Baker (our trusty 1998 Honda CRV), I’m temporarily brought back to the rolling green pastures, fiery sunsets, dramatic ocean cliff sides merging with turquoise waters, crashing waves and sea spray. There was so much laughter, so many tears, and a complete feeling of joy and peace life that filled the tiny box of a car that we lived in part-time during our adventure. My kiwi friends always said we were doing way more than they had their entire lives in New Zealand. And I was shocked, but at the same time if you don’t know any different it’s harder to appreciate what you have. That’s one great thing I think that came out of my Kiwi friendships. They gained more appreciation for the beautiful place they live, and I think we inspired many of them to join us or make plans to explore more places in the future. Once you see how much people value and appreciate what you consider your home, it definitely gives you more of an appreciation for your home as well.

In the end, I couldn’t me more thankful to have had this incredible abroad experience–for the opportunity to travel and see such a remarkable country, for the people that made my time there all that it could have been, and for the new knowledge and international perspective I gained both in and out of the classroom.

Life in New Zealand

 

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Nugget Point, South Island

This past fall semester, I had the incredible opportunity to study abroad at Victoria University of Wellington in Wellington, New Zealand from June to December. This semester abroad related perfectly to my global theme (global public health) because I was focusing on fulfilling some of my global public health minor credits. This included taking classes such as Biology of Disease and Sociology of Reproduction and Gender, all taught from the New Zealand perspective.
I cant even begin to describe how many new things I learned from this experience. First of all, it was incredibly eye-opening to learn about public health from the New Zealand perspective. Not only were my classes centered around public health issues that are endemic to New Zealand, such as asthma (New Zealand has the second highest rate of asthma among children in the world) and rising rates of Multiple Sclerosis, but they also focused on how New Zealanders work to combat infectious diseases that are prevalent around the world.
I also learned so much about earth sciences, such as seismology and volcanology, just by being in a place that is so tectonically active. It’s hard to live in a country that experiences earthquakes almost monthly and not learn anything about them! New Zealand also has flora and fauna that are unique and found nowhere else in the world. A perfect example of this is the Kea: the world’s only alpine parrot found in the Southern Alps that also likes to attack unsuspecting hikers. Through seeing and being among the wildlife, I learned so much about unique ecological systems and how human interaction greatly affects them.
My leadership skills grew immensely from this abroad experience. One of the most important skills for a leader to have is the ability to listen to multiple opinions and ideas and find a way to connect them. Many of my classes had group-based projects where I had the opportunity to work with many students from different areas of New Zealand and around the world. This increased my ability to communicate with other students who come from different perspectives which heightened leadership skills that I had worked on building before my study abroad.
New Zealand is a small country (roughly the size of Colorado), but it is gaining recognition and its population is growing larger and larger each year due to high immigration rates as well as more local families having children. This makes me wonder how the impact of New Zealand on the rest of the world will change over the next few years.

 

 

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Milford Sound, South Island

 

 

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Roy’s Peak, South Island

 

 

 

Culture in Catalonia

My gli theme and challenge was to address poverty in spain and how it has affected the education system. While in spain i was given the opportunity to ask fellow Spanish classmates about their experiences with the education system and how it affected the impoverished. Many answered that because of the rising tuition costs for university some students would often have to take time off to raise money before pursuing a university career. This would often result, in my time in spain, with public protests at the university. These protests would be significant enough to shut down the university for several days, however the government would continue to ignore these protests.

I learned from this experience to explore and understand a different countries culture. Specifically, in Barcelona, catalans are very proud of their history. Catalans have years of often being put down by the Spanish government and my professors and fellow peers helped me understand their hardships. Being able to truly understand this changed my experience to be more open minded of the locals when visiting a new country. It is important to understand their hardships and traditions which they find pride in. This in the end changed my view of how i will continue to experience any culture.

Also, a fond memory i have of my time there was of spending one of my first days in Barcelona. Once there i decided to take advantage of the free art museum days and went out to explore by myself. This helped me step out of my boundaries and start to feel comfortable in this new foreign country i was alone in. From that point onward i was able to comfortably go on my own path, experiencing and meeting new people. This has made me even more confident to go on may adventures to come.

 

Stories from Skid Row

Margaret Finlay

Ending up on Skid Row is something most of us are told to avoid; however, I ventured to Hollywood, California, with that exact purpose in mind. Along with other students through the Office for Civic Engagement, I traveled to Los Angeles, California, for a week during Wintersession 2018 to serve those experiencing poverty and homelessness. Though it may sound cliché, the week forever changed my perspective on poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

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School is beyond difficult, challenging, and stressful for all of us, but I entered L.A. as an English Education major focusing on the Global Theme of Social Inequality and Human Rights, and the education and schooling present in the lives of the children and adults we encountered in our service showed both the efficacy and deficiencies of the American education system.

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Throughout our time in California, we saw many efforts toward bettering the lives of oneself and others present in the many people and places we visited. We saw children returning “home” to a homeless shelter after school, with a backpack and fistful of papers in tow. We participated in after-school activities with students from the projects, attempting to fill the “risky” hours associated with the time after school and before parents return from work. We learned about classes that teach former gang members and ex-convicts about parenting, anger management, and getting a high school diploma. For those members of society who don’t mold into “standardized” education, these programs offer new opportunities and hope.

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Poverty versus Privilege

Hope: the one word that continues coming to mind even after the time has passed. Those experiencing homelessness and poverty never lost it. Children in the projects talked about it when they imagined leaving their harrowing conditions. Former gang members referred to it when they told stories of drive-bys and death. As many have said before: “Where there is life, there is hope.” No one exemplifies this idea more than those experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles.

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Painting fingernails at Union Rescue Mission

Kyrgyz for Conservation

Here I find myself in Kyrgyzstan. You may be asking yourself, “Is that a country?” or “Is it part of Russia?” or “What did you say? Kyrokistani?”…. yes I have received all of the comments before. So let’s clarify. Kyrgyzstan is a country located in Central Asia. It  borders western China, southern Kazakhstan, eastern Uzbekistan, and northern Tajikistan. The people here are called Kyrgyz and they speak Kyrgyz language. Many also speak fluently in Russian because they were apart of the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. Hence, they have many Russian influences in their culture, education, and politics. But Kyrgyzstan is the first country in Central Asia to fight for a truly democratic society. In the past 20 years, they underwent two revolutions for the sake of democracy. And their efforts have succeeded. In October of 2017, the Kyrgyz Republic had their first presidential elections in which they weren’t sure who would be the winner. Following the elections, they had their first peaceful transfer of power between presidents.

Kyrgyzstan is truly a gem in this part of the world. More than 80% of the landscape is occupied by mountains. They consider themselves nomadic because they traditionally roamed the mountains of Central Asia to find feeding grounds for their livestock. They lived in yurts and relied heavily on horses. They hunted and fished. They used animal parts and furs to make clothing, tools, and handicrafts. They even had time to play enthralling games such as Kok-Boru and Oodarysh. During the 70 year reign of the Soviet Union, the Kyrgyz people were heavily suppressed culturally, but they clung tightly to their roots. Now, they are seeking to reestablish their heritage in a modern world and vibrantly express their traditions for all the world to see. They have hosted the World Nomad Games since its beginning in 2014. Through this international sports event, countries come to compete in traditional nomadic games and celebrate nomadic lifestyles. You can see a bit of the brilliant chaos in this promotional video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwpdPRzBJ44.

So I hope you are thinking, “Wow this sounds like a really cool place!” but you may also be asking, “Why Kyrgyzstan?”

I guess I should talk a little bit of what drew me to this place at this time in my life. At the University of Montana, I am studying Resource Conservation with a focus in Wildlife Biology. Since the beginning of my studies, I have been fascinated by Asiatic wildlife. In particular cats. Whether it was Amur tigers in eastern Russian or snow leopards in Central Asia, I knew I wanted to go to a place where I could work on cat conservation. When I saw pictures of the landscape and wildlife of Kyrgyzstan, I decided there was no better place for me to go. My global theme for GLI is Natural Resources and Sustainability and my challenge is the preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity. In Central Asia, populations of snow leopards and their prey species (ibex, argali, markhor) are negatively affected by illegal hunting, aka poaching. In recent years, governments and organizations such as Panthera have been working against poaching by developing and supporting community-based conservancies. When managed correctly, these conservancies can provide many opportunities for members in the community through land and wildlife management, eco-tourism, and legal hunting. In the Murghab Conservancy of Tajikistan, up to 20 rangers and guides are hired during high hunting and tourist season. A new project in the region is even teaching women how to be hunting and hiking guides.

In these communities, the locals take immense pride in their land and wildlife. I was surprised to learn that most of the rangers in these conservancies were once poachers. When they realized the immense damage they were having on wildlife populations, they decided to team up with organizations and help restore populations. Since then, they have overcome tremendous obstacles to turn around the fates of certain populations.

I can confidently say positive conservation movements are occurring throughout Central Asia. Yet, many problems continue to exist as well, especially in poorly managed conservancies. So much work still needs to be done. I am very lucky to have the opportunity to volunteer with the organization Panthera. While working alongside their incredible team, I am learning how they help develop community-based conservation in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The most valuable information I have learned thus far is that the locals are the smartest conservationists for their areas. They may not have degrees in wildlife biology or resource management, but they have strong connections to the land and the way it works. They have lived off it for the past several thousand years. If we want to succeed in properly managing land and wildlife, we must work tightly with the people who live off it and affect it.

I am excited to see where these experiences take me. I would love to come back to Central Asia after I finish my degree and gain more experience in land and wildlife management in the states. My most taunting questions at the moment are the following:

  1. How are ecotourism and legal hunting positively affecting conservation here? How are they negatively affecting conservation?
  2. Why do some community-based conservancies work really well? Why are some struggling?
  3. How do we get the general public more involved in this field so they understand why balanced ecosystems is vitally important for our future world?

I would love to hear your thoughts and comments so don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. And don’t forget to look through the pictures below!

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Early autumn in a mountain valley near Lake Issyk-Kul. Typically rangers let their livestock free-range during the day and bring them into corrals at night.

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A large yurt near the historic sight Tash Rabat. A cat perches on the top, overlooking his large kingdom.

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A Marco Polo sheep skull. Marco Polo are the largest subspecies of argali and the largest mountain sheep in the world.

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Piled in a Toyota Landrover on our search for argali and ibex. The women in the back are training to be rangers and guides for the Murghab Conservancy.

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Alichur village in Tajikistan which helps runs the Murghab conservancy.

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Here you can see the Tien Shan mountain range. It stretches the 533 mile border between Kyrgyzstan and China. You can also see the border fence.

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On the top of the hill stands a markhor, This animal is unique to certain regions of Tajikistan.