This fall, I decided to make a slight departure from my usual course of study. I’m a junior PPE major, but I opted to venture to Ecuador for a few months to study ecology and conservation. If you know me, you probably know I love being outdoors, so you can imagine why I feel especially lucky to be here and to go to such awe-inspiring locations. As someone who cares deeply about the environment, it’s fascinating learning about the science that anchors the theory to which I’m more accustomed.
Since making the decision to study abroad, I’ve been more fortunate than I have the capacity to comprehend. While I do miss Claremont, my friends, and the organizations in which I take part, I’m having one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
For the past month and a half, I, along with 19 other students from the U.S., have been studying mostly in Quito, but have spent weeklong excursions in the Chimborazo páramo (the highlands around a volcano), the cloud forest at Santa Lucia and Yunguilla, and the Amazon near Yasuní National Park. On Friday, we’re headed to the Galápagos Islands. The program also includes a month-long independent field study project, during which I’ll be studying the ecological and environmental impacts of coffee in the cloud forest. Needless to say, this program is pretty sweet.
Until recently, I had been struggling with the best way to describe my semester to friends and family back home. “Life-changing” hadn’t seemed fully appropriate, since I’m not a drastically different person from the Henry who left SFO in August with no idea what to expect. But about a week ago, while procrastinating writing internship applications and a paper, I was on Facebook, and I came across a few posts from Richard Harris (CMC ’16), my WOA leader from freshman year. Richard has been traveling around the world, and I hadn’t talked to him in a little while, so I reached out to see how his adventures were going. One thing he said struck me as particularly accurate to both his and my journeys abroad: they had been “life-expanding.”
The semester so far has certainly expanded my life in ways I wouldn’t have previously thought possible. If I may, I’d like to share one specific moment from a couple of weeks ago in the Amazon that I found to be life-expanding, and encourage you to seek out something similar. The next paragraph is adapted from what I wrote in my field notebook in that moment:
Standing atop the Tiputini Biodiversity Station’s (TBS) fifty-meter-tall canopy observation tower, it’s easy to gain some perspective. Not just literally, though this is obviously true (I can see different plants, birds, and other canopy-dwellers for dozens of kilometers in every direction I look), but my thoughts more along the lines of the perspective that such a view gives on everyday life. For me, looking out at Yasuní makes me think about my priorities. Each day at home in California, and even in Quito, I take for granted all of the ecological services that rainforests provide. One example among many is that the world’s water supply is heavily dependent on the tropics for cycling, which is essentially purification and production. Believe it or not, rainfall in the U.S. and around the world is directly linked to these amazing forests. Standing here, I can’t help but have mixed feelings: I am exuberant about the gorgeous expanse in front of my eyes and dismayed that it is simultaneously one of Earth’s most biodiverse spots and one of its most threatened. It’s hard not to think that preserving and conserving places like this should be at the top of our planetary to-do list and each of ours individually.
I don’t want to lecture on the importance of protecting and acting as stewards of the environment, but I do want to emphasize something that felt particularly salient for me while atop the tower. I stood up there for over two hours, starting with the sunrise around 5:45am, with five other students, one professor, and a TBS guide. During that time, we probably shared five total minutes of conversation, mostly just to point out rare bird species. We revelled in the majesty of the moment, and this is what I implore each of you to do.
Obviously, I’m not asking you to go to the TBS and spend a week there, but the message I want to try to convey is this: allow yourself to become enraptured in a moment.
These moments can take place anywhere. Get outside, even if that just means going to the Pomona Farm or one of Scripps’ gardens. Open yourself to the breathtaking awe of stargazing on a clear night in Joshua tree. Take a break from work and your phone and spend two hours at Pitzer’s dining hall with your best friend, getting lost in the wonderful labyrinth that is genuine, vulnerable, meaningful conversation. If nothing else, take ten minutes from your day, put on your favorite music, and think about all the best parts of your life, whether that is a developing friendship that you didn’t expect or a project that you’re passionate about to your core. Let yourself be whisked away, captive to the intrinsic beauty and magic of life, even if just for a few minutes.
Of course, it’s easy for me to preach from one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been, but I mean it when I say these moments are everywhere. Give yourself the opportunity to have a life-expanding experience, and you will. Regardless of when, where, or with whom it happens, I am sure that the time you set aside will pay off in perspective, which, if not totally new, different, or life-changing, may just make you more thoughtful, aware, understanding, or loving.