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Saint Mary’s professor orchestrates study abroad opportunities in Ecuador

| Monday, April 10, 2017

Professor of biology Joel Ralston is the new director of the Saint Mary’s Ecuador program called “Environments of Ecuador.” The trip predominantly sends biology majors to Ecuador, but the invitation is also extended to students who are interested in the environment.

The program maintains a proactive cultural awareness aspect that strives for students to interact positively with the people of Ecuador, Ralston said.

“We spend time in Quito, which is a large city in Ecuador, and in some local villages as well,” he said. “Within our first days there, we participate in a service project in a village near Quito. That involves serving lunch to the school children and interacting with them. The students also travel to a market to experience some of the foods and the Amazon Rainforest, which has a rich culture and shows us how the forest is used by the peoples of the Amazon.”

As the new director, Ralston said he will change the program very little.

“There’s very few changes overall,” he said. “The trip was run by [Thomas Fogle] in the Biology department, and he set all this up, especially the Amazonian culture part of the trip, including the market visit and service project. The only new thing about the program is me.”

Ralston said he is thrilled to be part of the program, as he is a biologist, ornithologist and natural lover of the environment.

“I’m very excited,” he said. “I’m a biologist, and I’m interested in wildlife and ecology. In particular, I study birds, so I’m really just excited to go to the rainforest and see all the birds.”

Students attendees will experience both adventure and education, Ralston said.

“We take a lot of biology students, so as a biologist one of the great things about the trip is we’re walking in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, who famously visited the Galapagos Islands,” he said. “The Galapagos were formative in his ideas about natural selection and evolution. As evolutionary biologists and biologists in general, that’s one of the really cool things about it. Students get to see all he’s seen and use it to form their own understanding of biology. It becomes a real world aspect to the student’s learning.

“For other students, the adventure of the trip is once in a lifetime. We go to the Andes, the Amazon and the Galapagos. There are a lot of exciting activities.”

Ralston said the trip focuses on conservation and how students can become mindful of the world they live in.

“Part of it is just opening their eyes to the incredible diversity that exists on the planet,” he said. “Going to the Galapagos and swimming next to a sea turtle or walking in the Amazon next to a tree as big as a skyscraper gives you a different perspective on what we have on the planet to lose. And part of reading and getting ready for the course is learning about the cultures — how the people of Ecuador interact with the environments that we’re seeing, or how do the tribes in the Amazon use the rainforest as a resource to support their culture and society?”

Ralston said he hopes the Ecuador program benefits students in more ways than one and provide students with a global awareness..

“I hope the takeaway is more than just an adventure,” he said. “I hope the program will be adventurous but also more than just a vacation. We get to learn about conservation of wildlife and our place in the world. There are things that we do here in Indiana that impact the rainforest and wildlife around the world and people around the world. Seeing how different people around the world live, and how different ecosystems around the world are, we get to inform ourselves on how to be better humans.”

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