Gracie Cates graduated from Biological Sciences in December of 2016. Before graduating, she spent last summer immersed in "Hokies Abroad Australia & New Zealand: Sustainability & Conservation-based Service Learning Program"; a 28-day field course in New Zealand and northeast Queensland, Australia. Here, she reflects on the experiences she had and the impact the program has made on her work and life. 

If you are interested in participating in Hokies Abroad Australia & New Zealand 2017, apply now! The deadline for applying is February 15, 2017. 


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Reflecting on the program . . . 

What, specifically, drew you to enrolling in Hokies Abroad Australia and New Zealand?

Ever since I saw my older, twin sisters’ study abroad photographs, I have been yearning to study abroad. I love traveling—seeing new places and learning new cultures. I love science and protecting the environment. The Hokies Abroad Australia and New Zealand Program would fulfill my dream of studying abroad while enhancing my cultural awareness and sustainability knowledge. Also, like so many of the students on my trip, I had always dreamed of going to Australia and New Zealand. It seemed like the perfect opportunity, and I was not going to let it slip away.

Can you give a quick synopsis of the program?

The program focused on sustainability and conservation within New Zealand and Australia. We started our trip in New Zealand, learning from Doug Farr of Kuaka New Zealand and Lance and Rawinia (Maori elders) about the indigenous Maori people and their intricate, protective relationship with the environment, the detrimental impacts British settlers had on the unique flora and fauna of the isolated islands, and the governmental and civilian conservation efforts focused on protecting the ecosystems of New Zealand.

The second portion of the trip was spent traveling around the eastern top of Australia. Here, we removed suffocating seaweed from a portion of the Great Barrier Reef, learned about calculating Koala population density, helped Ingan Tours prepare their future Tent Camp site, determined the health of the Great Barrier Reef offshore of Port Douglas, learned about the Daintree Rainforest, and so much more. Just as we had in New Zealand, we were taught about the Aboriginal Peoples’ culture, history, and intimate relationship with the environment.

Throughout the entirety of the experience, Dr. Lori Blanc and Ms. Angela De Soto remained focused on the three realms of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. These three aspects of the world are intimately intertwined together just as the mangrove, rainforest, and reef ecosystems are woven together. However, without the environment, the economy and social aspects would completely collapse.

 What about the program exceeded your expectations?

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I could learn so much in such a short period of time. When people heard I was embarking on this amazing experience Iwould get the following questions:

“At what university will you be taking classes?”

“How many classes will you be taking?”

However, this experience was unique. The entire trip was a learning experience. When we went on hikes, our guide would teach use about the flora and fauna, the impacts human actions have had on them, and the projects dedicated to restoring those species. Bus rides would even include delightful information like, “Look! There is a Kiwi farm. The Kiwi fruit is one of New Zealand’s biggest exports. The large wall of vegetation in front of the Kiwi rows acts as a natural buffer from the wind”. Oh, how I miss the delicious Gold Kiwi…I also never expected to make such amazing lifelong friends.

I have kept in contact with Sonya Jeffrey from Ingan Tours and am planning to travel back to Australia in the next 2 years to work with her and her father Dr. Ernie Grant. Doug Farr from Kauka New Zealand, the Maori elders Rawinia and Lance, John Rumney and Paul O’Dowd from Eye to Eye Marine Encounters and the Great Barrier Reef Legacy…These people did not pass by through my life like sticks flowing in a river. As Sonya Jeffrey said to us, “You came as strangers, you leave as family”. These people are not strangers. They are my family.

What surprised you?

The entire experience was filled with surprises, so I will have to mention a smattering of them. As a biology major, I knew the basis of sustainability—or so I thought. Sustainability is not solely focused on the environment. It incorporates three separate, yet intertwined realms: economy, society, and the environment. The first two rely on the third. Yet the third can benefit from the first two.

As an individual completely in love with culture, I knew about the horrific history the Aboriginal peoples experienced at the hands of the British settlers. However, I did not comprehend the extent of the horror. I cannot adequately place into words the atrocities committed upon these beautiful souls, but I now have a deeper understanding of their past. More importantly, I understand, at least a little, their intricate relationship with the surrounding environment. As my article mentions, the Great Barrier Reef is in a precarious situation. Nutrient runoff, rising ocean temperatures, and many other factors are increasing coral bleaching rates. The shear rapidity of this bleaching absolutely shocked me.

Can you describe an experience you had in the program that stands out for you?

Personally, one of the most influential experiences on this trip occurred near Hidden Valley Cabins in Australia. It did not focus on lectures or small research projects. Instead, it was a hike through the bush to a watering hole. Yes, the scenery was so picturesque it could exist within the shiny pages of a National Geographic magazine. However, this memory is closer to my heart due to the personal growth I experienced.

It all boils down to one fact: I am incredibly afraid of heights. I do not like roller coasters with large drops or jumping off a ten-foot tall boathouse into a lake. Yet, over a portion of this large watering hole jutted out a rock—twelve feet above the water. The guide promised it was safe to launch off of and into the chilly water. Almost everyone from the course fearlessly flew from the dark rock, but I was shaking in fear on the inside. But, no matter the fear, I wanted to jump. I wanted to face one of my longest-standing fears. So, while grasping tightly onto Grace Davis’s hand, I ran and leaped off of the precipice. As my body became cocooned in the freezing water and my head surfaced, a smile spread across my face. I did it. I jumped. I jumped twice. I faced my fear, and I felt so proud of myself. Moments like these, where fear shakes you to the core but you don’t let it win, stay with you forever. I will never forget this moment.


Speaking to the impact of the study-abroad experience on her work and life since returning . . . 

Can you speak to ways in which you have applied what you learned from the service learning program?

I have tried to buy more local foods and products. This decreases importation and exportation carbon emissions associated with my purchases. It also supports local farmers and artisans. I have definitely shared my experiences and newly-learned sustainability knowledge with almost everyone I know. I hope this will help people yearn to make a difference in this sector of society.

This past semester, I worked under Angella De Soto to help create a Virginia Tech Sustainability Database. I researched the professors and research personal of the university to determine if they worked in or were interested in any of the three realms of sustainability. The goal of this project is to create a database that can connect professors working in sustainability with other professors and students. However, I would not have been able to complete this project without the study abroad course. Before the course, I did not even know sustainability encompassed more than the environment.

Did the experience make an impact on your sense of purpose-driven engagement as you navigate the remainder of your college career?

I just graduated Virginia Tech in December, but I believe people continue to learn throughout their entire life. I absolutely love learning about new inventions in the sustainability field. Reading articles on solar panels and watching videos on wind turbines is now a common pass time for me. Also, as an individual working towards becoming a medical doctor, this experience revealed social sustainability to me. Health is a basic human right. I want to incorporate social sustainability into my future medical practice to ensure I provide health to as many individuals as possible.

Barring any and all obstacles, what impact do you ultimately hope to have on the world?

I want to impact the world as a doctor, improving the health and happiness of as many people as I can in my life. This experience just emphasized this purpose for me. It taught me about social sustainability and that health is a basic human right. Doug Farr of Kuaka New Zealand taught us a Maori saying that goes,

“He aha te mea nui o te ao

What is the most important thing in the world?

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

It is the people, it is the people, it is the people”. I want to give health to the world’s people.

How did your experience enable you to learn about yourself?

I learned about my endless dedication and heart. If I truly value something, I will work to learn more about it and do my best to teach others. When something upsets me due to injustice, like the British treatment of the Aboriginal peoples, my heart aches and I become deeply upset. I also learned about how much I love learning through experiences. Through this one month abroad, I feel as though I learned more than in a semester long class, and I absolutely loved it all.

Anything else you would like to add…

I want to emphasize the inclusivity of this program. Yes, it is heavily science-based, but at least four of my fellow classmates were not studying the core sciences. They learned just as much as I, and I know they absolutely loved the entire month.

Want to learn more about Study Abroad?

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