** Editor’s Note: The following is a student perspective by Aven Satre-Meloy ’13 about his experience with the SCU Baja Program as part of study abroad.
I never thought I would spend spring break in college diving with sea lions in the Sea of Cortez or circumnavigating an island by kayak with 18 classmates and two professors. The SCU Baja Program takes students on a 10-day sea kayaking expedition to explore and write about the natural history of Isla Espirítu Santo in Baja California Sur. I was a student first and then a peer educator for the program, and these two trips may be the most memorable experiences of my entire college career.
The SCU Baja Program, or “Baja” as it is better known by students, is run through the Environmental Studies and Sciences (ESS) Department. The program includes two courses taken simultaneously during the Winter Quarter followed by ten days of camping, kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking on and around a small archipelago off the coast of La Paz in Baja California Sur.
Students enroll in BIOL 144, Natural History of Baja, and ENVS 142, Writing Natural History. Coursework consists of studying and presenting a report about individual species that become each student’s “amigos” during the expedition. Throughout the quarter students also practice close observation of nature coupled with weekly journal entries that develop a literary voice and engage in self-reflection. During the trip, students tackle daily writing prompts ranging from specific descriptions of a species’ behavior to a natural history of the species’ body.
My first time through the program, I learned so much about the ecology and natural history of Baja California Sur prior to the trip south, but lectures and PowerPoint presentations could not prepare me or any of my classmates for the true beauty of this place. We kayaked through pods of dolphins and next to sea turtles, we hiked up to osprey nests hanging deftly onto cliff walls, and we snorkeled with King Angelfish in crystal blue water. I remember waking up one morning at dawn on the edge of the beach, hearing ecstatic calls from our group in response to a 40-foot humpback whale that had just breached a mile or so off the coast. On the last day of the trip, a pilot whale accompanied us in the late afternoon sun as we kayaked toward a two-mile long beach at the southern end of the island where we would make camp.
For a student of natural history who spends 10 weeks learning how to distinguish the color, shape, texture, smell, and (sometimes) taste of natural geography and wildlife, the trip often leads to a sensory awakening, which is chronicled in small, leather Moleskine journals that are coated in sand and damp at the page edges. I felt this awakening most profoundly when I would sit on the beach at sunset and watch the sun plunge into the ocean, sending forth an explosion of reds, blues, and oranges across the sprawling sky. After my first time on the trip, I knew I had to go back—to return to that serene classroom on the island.
As a peer educator, my role differed slightly in that I was there to help students engage with their “amigos” on the island and also to make sure the logistical aspects of the trip went smoothly. It was during this second trip, though, that I became attuned to a more subtle delight of Baja. I think my attention was focused more on the learning and writing on my first trip, but as a peer educator, I was able to see a close-knit community take shape as we all kayaked long days, helped each other cook, set up tents, and shared amazing views together. This, I think, is the real value of Baja. Not only does it provide students with an educational experience they will surely remember for the rest of their lives, it also allows them to connect with each other and the natural world in a deep, meaningful way.
In the Environmental Studies and Sciences department, we learn about the relationship between the human and natural world. We confront difficult challenges about how these two worlds are often at odds and we try to think of creative approaches to this problem. In my mind, Baja is the perfect approach. At the very least, students return from the trip with a powerful appreciation for the natural world, and they experience a connection with that world that is hard to find in a classroom or on campus. I felt that connection, and I returned to Baja because of it. I hope to go back again soon, and I am excited that even more students will be able to expand their sense of community to include this strikingly beautiful place.