On Monday, a group of 14 students and two faculty members returned from their 10-day trip exploring the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador.
Jeremy Fein, professor of civil and environmental engineering and Earth sciences, and Gary Lamberti, professor of biological sciences, oversaw the excursion. Lamberti explained that this trip differed from other Notre Dame study abroad programs.
“The trip is embedded in a regular course. So the course is a two-credit [biology and civil engineering] course and it’s called ‘Field Practicum – Galapagos Islands’,” Lamberti explained.
Students don’t just leave campus to travel to South America for the course; they also go off campus into South Bend, Lamberti said.
“As part of this course, the students also do a service project at the Robinson Community Learning Center down on Eddy Street… we have them spend two sessions with the students at the Robinson Center, teaching them about the Galapagos.”
Lamberti reflects on how the service element of the course is special, as it brings the University’s funding for the trip “full-circle” and gives the students an opportunity to give back to the South Bend community.
But why the Galapagos? Fein explained the famous reputation of the islands and why they are considered so unique.
“The Galapagos were where Charles Darwin made his observations that led directly to the theory of evolution,” Fein said. “So that’s why it’s world-famous. These are ‘fresh islands’ that have come out from the seafloor on top of a hotspot and have been colonized by a whole range of plants and animals that have evolved separately from the mainland,” he said.
Lamberti expanded on just how special the islands are.
“The plants and animals that occur on the islands are unique worldwide. Many of them exist no place else on the planet,” Lamberti said. “And the animals in particular have virtually no fear of humans.”
Honey Stukes, a junior studying biology, said that the unique atmosphere of the Galapagos was noticeable from the minute the group stepped off the plane.
“We just walked a couple of steps like right off the plane… we saw the prickly pears and so much, and we weren’t even in the airport yet.” Stukes said. She described her attempt to “soak it all in like a sponge.”
The group stayed in Puerto Ayora, the most populous town in the islands. Each day, they visited a different island, making observations and conducting individual research, as well as experiencing the landscape around them through many hikes and snorkeling expeditions.
Senior Megan Hilbert, an environmental science major, reflected on the diversity of the islands.
“Overall, I was really surprised by how different all of the islands were. Every day it just felt like a totally different corner of the world,” Hilbert said.
Students agreed that what every place had in common were the up-close interactions with wildlife.
Junior Shannon Reilly, a civil engineering major, joked that it was often the animals that broke the existing mutual protection rules.
“Sea turtles came and swam right underneath us and it just did not look real. We’re supposed to stay six feet, but the turtle completely broke that one.” Reilly said.
In addition to sea turtles, students highlighted their close encounters with sea lions, manta rays, giant tortoises, iguanas, and native bird species— just to name a few.
Junior Peter Martin, a biological sciences major, referred to the islands as “the Holy Land for biologists.” Martin said that the conservation of the Galapagos is a product of hard work and sacrifice.
“It showed that when you conserve these large areas of land and you have people willing to make sacrifices to protect the environment, you create these rich biodiversity hotspots with animals that aren’t afraid of humans,” he said.
Martin said that the preservation of the islands was due to conscious choices.
“We met members of the community who understood how valuable and precious these ecosystems and places are… it really showed me the need to educate the next generations and show them how we can have this love and respect and care for the natural world,” he added.
Senior Hannah Enabnit, an environmental engineering major, explained how the group was fortunate to learn from one of these locals, their guide Luis.
“We had our guide Luis, and he had lived there for at least 20 years. He was so knowledgeable… he knew every detail about the Galapagos, but also just other things going on in the world. It was so impressive to me,” Enabnit said.
Attempting to sum up the experience in a single phrase, students described their trip as “surreal,” “out of a dream,” and most collectively: “once in a lifetime.”
Professors Fein and Lamberti agree that their favorite aspect of the program is getting to watch the students’ enthusiasm unfold. Fein explained that this is the most rewarding part of the program.
“I think Gary and I both do it because we love the reaction of the students… it’s, you know, a potentially life-changing experience,” Fein said.
“Seeing the excitement in our students when they see their first Galapagos tortoise or their first marine iguana or their first blue-footed boobie and all the unique animals is just wondrous,” Lamberti said.
Students reflecting on the trip expressed a sense of gratitude. Reilly said that, above all, she feels “extremely lucky.”
“Not many universities have programs like this, and I feel just really lucky that Notre Dame does and with such great professors and that I got chosen to go,” Reilly said.
Stukes expressed a similar feeling of appreciation.
“It was just a life-changing experience, I think for all of us… I’m still trying to process it. I look over the pictures and I’m like ‘I was there,’” she said.
“We all tried to record stuff, but at some point, we all just kind of stopped. We just had silent moments, and we were just looking around. We were just present in the beauty.”
You can contact Kelsey Quint at firstname.lastname@example.org.