SARASOTA, Fla. (Aug. 29, 2016) The experience was unlike any other for Victoria Ramirez. Up at dawn to the sound of howler monkeys, their distinctive call ricocheting across the lowland forest. Then a short hike to the dining hall for a breakfast of rice, beans, fried eggs and papaya – hearty fare to keep up her strength for the hours spent roaming the undergrowth.
At the La Selva Biological Station in the Costa Rican rainforest, life howls, hums and crawls at a pace far removed from the mechanized, digitized world of Sarasota. Creatures seemingly inhabit every square inch, and aside from the occasional eco-tourist, the only humans to occupy this idyllic preserve at the northern base of Braulio Carrillo National Park are the teams of researchers.
It’s here where Ramirez and four other undergraduate biology students from the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee found themselves for 15 days as part of a series of donor-supported study-abroad trips sponsored by USF World and the USFSM Global Engagement Office.
And while the students might have been the only ones to scurry across a footbridge more than 100 feet above a gorge, they weren’t the only USFSM students to venture to exciting places. Also hitting the road under the Study Abroad banner were eight other USFSM students who travelled to Merida, Mexico; Florence, Italy and London.
But it was the Costa Rican trip that tipped the scales for sheer uncommonness. As many other college students settled into internships, took classes to get a jump on the fall semester or simply lounged on a beach or poolside, Ramirez was crisscrossing narrow footpaths under a thick green canopy in search of her target species, in this case tiny terrestrial gastropods – thimble-sized snails.
The two-week excursion – with stops at another research station, a coffee plantation, a chocolate grower and an indigenous community – was intended to offer Ramirez and the other students a glimpse into the life of a field biologist.
Led by Dr. Edie Banner, an USFSM instructor of organic chemistry and a frequent visitor to La Selva, the students were tasked with finding species to examine over the course of their stay. While observing their quarry, they would take photographs and ask themselves why the creatures looked and behaved the way they do.
Ramirez settled on gastropods after spotting one crawling on a tree. She then set out to find others. “I was trying to identify them, their habitats and their diet,” she said.
The experience at the 3,900-acre preserve left the students in awe at the biodiversity. Howler monkeys, sloths, toucans, motmots with their long, wispy tails and flocks of brightly colored butterflies populate the landscape, which ranges from 115 to 492 feet in elevation.
Protected by the Organization for Tropical Studies, a consortium of universities and research institutions from the United States, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, La Selva hosts about 300 scientists and 100 university courses yearly. It is recognized internationally for rainforest research and peer-reviewed studies. Dr. Banner has visited more than a dozen times as part of her own studies of poison dart frogs.
In addition to analyzing the forest’s unusual inhabitants, the students allowed time to explore their surroundings, such as during walks back to camp where the accommodations were clean but rustic. Insisting on safety at all times, Dr. Banner cautioned the students to tread carefully. Under each log or palm leaf awaited the real possibility of an eyelash viper, a Fer-de-Lance or some other venomous creature camouflaged amid the foliage.
Insects – “bullet ants,” in particular – proved to be a chief concern, as well, although thankfully none of the students suffered anything serious. “I got tons of spider bites. They were the itchiest things I ever felt in my life,” Ramirez said.
In all, she regarded the expedition “like a trip to another world.” Hardly a day passed without encountering some curious sight: long lines of ants carrying bits of leaves and other vegetation to their nests, toucans hopping from one branch to another or fruit bats darting under the canopy.
She recalled one moment during a trip to check butterfly traps when a gust of wind triggered a downpour of pink petals: “It was raining flowers.”
In late afternoons, weary from their explorations, and sometimes soaked to the skin – the area receives 13 feet of rain yearly – the students returned to camp for meals of rice, beans and chicken and to await nightfall’s rapid descent. Pitch-black by 6 p.m., the only objects to punctuate the night are squadrons of fireflies and patches of bioluminescent fungi that cling to trees, creating a magical setting for evening hikes.
“It was all so beautiful,” Ramirez said.
Of course, the students were anxious to return to their families and comforts of home when the trip ended. At La Selva, the sleeping quarters lacked air conditioning so there was no escaping the steamy humidity, though an overhead fan provided a little relief. “There were screens on the windows, but you could see through the boards,” Ramirez said. “We were constantly sweating.”
The group touched down in Orlando on July 12. “We were all excited to be coming home, but it was an experience I will never forget,” she said.
Making memories amidst Florence’s art, architecture
Halfway around the world, Alicia Whitworth embarked on her own memorable journey. Traveling to Rome and then Florence, the senior accounting major enrolled in three classes at Florence’s University of the Arts. For six weeks, she studied comparative political cultures, the history of Christianity and the art of the Italian family business.
But it was her explorations before and after class in particular that stirred her imagination. Up at 8 a.m. for an espresso and pastry before class, her daily walk took her alongside the Arno River and past the famed Il Duomo di Firenze with its polychrome marble panels. Even after three weeks, “I still couldn’t believe I was here,” she said. “I had to pinch myself.”
Unlike the Costa Rica trip with its stunning natural beauty at every turn, Florence immersed Whitworth into a wealth of Renaissance history and art. After class, she would stroll back to the apartment she shared with seven other USF students or venture off to wander the city and behold its art and architecture.
“There was so much history. It was amazing,” she said. “In Florence you can walk everywhere. Everything is 20 minutes apart.”
Her classes ran all day and required some study at night, but her weekends were mostly free. For her comparative political cultures class, she traveled to Vatican City and Siena, home of the celebrated Il Palio horse race at the Piazza del Campo.
Because her stay lasted more than a few days, Whitworth said she felt free to absorb the city’s sights, smells and tastes at a leisurely pace. She said she “fell in love” with freshly made mozzarella and pecorino cheeses, and although was never much of an espresso drinker, she developed an affinity for the rich drink.
“I never liked it, but there I had it every day,” she said, adding she regularly urged herself to try new things and “stretch your boundaries.”
Her classes delved into Italy’s history and culture, including its contemporary business culture. One fact in particular raised eyebrows with the fourth-year business student: In Italy, stringent labor laws make it almost impossible to fire bad employees, making companies wary to expand or replace workers. “A lot of employers work through contracting companies because there are so many government regulations,” she said.
Although Whitworth doesn’t speak Italian, she said never felt uncomfortable meandering the city’s courtyards and narrow side streets. Most shopkeepers, cab drivers and other Florentines know enough English to help visitors get by. Sometimes, she said, she ventured out with other students, but often she felt safe enough to travel alone.
“Everybody should travel alone at least once in their life,” she said, adding, “I was able to take my time and I got to know myself better. It teaches you to stretch your boundaries and go outside your comfort zone.
“I know I’m going to go back,” she said. “I don’t know whether it will be next summer, but I know I have to go back.”
Taking in London’s history while learning history
Jacqui Knake, an Interdisciplinary Social Sciences major, was likewise moved by her trip.
In some ways, it couldn’t have been better timed. Knake, whose studies include political science and history, arrived in London – her destination of four weeks – just days after Britain’s momentous withdrawal from the European Union. The so-called “Brexit” turned out to be all the talk from outdoor markets to shops and pubs. Newspapers and TV news stations fixated on the subject.
The topic garnered equally prominent attention in Knake’s political science class at University College London. Her arrival at Heathrow Airport capped a draining 11-hour trek that included a layover in Toronto. After finding her flat at Kings Cross, dropping off her bags and grabbing dinner, she finally returned around 9 p.m. to plop down and get some rest before the early classes.
In addition to political science, she signed up for a humanities class that included excursions to a local cabaret, dance recital and an all-weather production of “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Globe Theatre. “All-weather” turned out to be the operative phrase in this case. The show went on despite a downpour that drenched audience members. Standing in the rain almost the entire time, Knake and the other spectators were sopping wet while the actors performed on a covered stage.
“I was completely soaked,” she said, laughing. “It wasn’t like that every day, though. It didn’t rain that often. Normally it was overcast. We even had a couple days in the 90s.”
The trip offered a mix of studying and sightseeing. Knake and a half-dozen USF students obtained bus and rail passes during their first few days. Racing from one site to another on their off-time, the students made stops at Westminster Abbey, Tower Bridge, the Globe Theatre, Kew Gardens and Churchill’s War Room, where the prime minister hunkered down during the Nazi aerial bombardment.
Later, they took longer excursions outside the city: “I think my favorite day was when we went to Stonehenge and Bath,” Knake said, referring to the historic area two hours west of London.
Knake said she enjoyed delving into England’s history and culture. For her political science class, she examined the historical effects of migration on the British Empire then contrasted that to today’s immigration debate. Outside of class, when locals discovered she was American they peppered her with questions – including political ones.
The subject of Donald Trump and his comments about Muslims and immigrants inspired a handful of raucous comments. London’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, had famously sparred with Trump over the Republican’s proposal to ban Muslim immigration to the U.S. Trump has since modified his position to concern “any nation that has been compromised by terrorism.”
“Donald Trump is a hot topic over there,” Knake said. “Everybody was talking about the wall he wants to build.”
Overall, the trip was “an amazing experience,” she said. “Most people were pretty open to us and kind to us. Seeing the history, places that have been around for thousands of years, it was amazing to experience, just the atmosphere there.
“The hardest part was saying goodbye to the friends I made,” the 22-year-old said. “Saying goodbye to the city of London was difficult, just the memories I made there. I’ll definitely go back.”
About USF Sarasota-Manatee (USFSM)
USF Sarasota-Manatee is a regional campus of the University of South Florida system, offering the prestige of a nationally ranked research university with the convenience of a hometown location, including classes in Manatee County, Venice and online. Separately accredited, USFSM is ideal for those interested in pursuing a baccalaureate or master’s degree, professional certification, or continuing education credit in a small, personal setting with distinguished faculty and a dynamic curriculum of over 40 academic programs. Website: www.usfsm.edu.