By Judith Fong
Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com
Note: The students have now returned to Los Angeles from Micronesia and some are reflecting on their experiences. Remaining posts in this year’s blog will focus on lessons learned and ongoing environmental research activities in the waters off California.
I curled my toes in the soft white sand as I gazed out into the miles of sea. The vivid turquoise color of the ocean was unparalleled to any other waters I had ever seen in my life. On my left and right sat two new friends who I had not previously known existed before this past semester. And as the three of us stared into the unbelievably beautiful Palauan ocean, I realized that while most people would be blessed enough to touch or wade in that water, we would be even more lucky. Because approximately twenty minutes later we would pack up our bento boxes, climb into our boat, and spend the next forty minutes scuba diving among the ocean life that lay beneath the depths of that very ocean. This was no ordinary college course.
Rewind two years or so and I was a nervous high school student flipping through an overwhelmingly huge stack of college pamphlets. I had been at the same small private school in Pasadena for nine years and the most exotic ocean I had swum in was in Waikiki Beach.
When I arrived at USC for my first week of college, I began to interact with the Environmental Studies Program for the first time. Each time, there was some mention of a scientific diving course in Guam and Palau, which I considered too good to be true, but had a hard time visualizing myself actually doing it.
However, when the time came to turn in applications, I decided to just take a chance, apply, and see what happened. Looking back, that moment turned out to be the best decision of my college career so far.
ENST-480: Integrated Ecosystem Management in Micronesia has allowed me to travel to islands I had not previously heard of and there dive in some of the top spots in the world. I have picked mangos with locals in Palau, gone on nighttime snorkels in Guam, and experienced entirely new cultures. But more importantly, I was able to participate in actual research by collecting data in Palau.
Over the course of three days, my class and I embarked on numerous scuba dives and snorkels to lay transects along a prescribed course and count the number of key species, fish or invertebrates, that crossed our path. The data we collected was part of a research project that would help establish the health of the coral ecosystems we were diving in.
Being a part of something bigger than me gave me a sense of pride when stepping into the waters of Palau. I consider the data I collected to be my small contribution to the preservation of the invaluable reefs that may be degraded or gone if we are not careful in the future.
I do not think I could ever have prepared myself for the vastness or beauty of the marine world that lay beneath the ocean surface. But I also did not expect how much this course taught me, beyond textbooks and class lectures. I have no doubt that the learning experiences I gained from this course will influence my actions and mindset for the rest of my college career and beyond.
Beyond the scientific knowledge I obtained, the course also provided the right amount of adventure and challenge. The four instructors that accompanied us on our trip provided me with insight and support. However, some of the biggest lessons I learned came from the older students on the trip. As a freshman (or rising sophomore), I was able to observe and learn from other more experienced students in my major. Never hesitant to offer advice as a mentor and friend, their personal college paths inspired and enlightened me.
Amidst all of the required General Education courses taken on campus, I had a hard time finding a fellow ENST major and rarely interacted with upperclassmen. The Guam and Palau course has exposed me to students with the same interests who I know will support me just as I will support them. I admire each and every student I met on the trip and have grown so grateful for the family that is the USC Environmental Studies Program.
When I first entered USC, I knew very little about the Environmental Studies Program. Over the past year, I have been able to interact with my professors on an individual basis and have seen how much they want me to succeed by the immense support they have provided.
Although I am only just completing my freshman year, the program has already provided me multiple invaluable opportunities. The Guam and Palau course has allowed me to imagine what my future may hold.
About the Author: Judith Fong has just completed her freshman year in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences working towards a B.S. degree in Environmental Studies. She hopes her participation in scientific scuba diving will help open new opportunities to explore marine biology and field research.
Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.
Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.