Posted: September 3, 2015

Name: Kayt Colburn
Education: Bachelor of Science, Sweet Briar College, 2011; Masters in GIS (Geographic Information Systems), University of Redlands, 2013
SFS Program: Kenya/Tanzania, Spring 2010
Current Position: GIS Developer

Why did you choose SFS as a study abroad program?
When I was an undergrad, I was thrilled to learn that as a science major I could study abroad without having to take a semester off and still earn credit in biology and environmental studies. I had dreamed about going to Africa my entire life, and the stars aligned as the perfect situation presented itself to me in the form of the Kenya/Tanzania semester.
I hesitated for a moment between spending a semester abroad and doing lab research at my home university, but then my advisor turned to me and said: “How do you want to remember your college experience in 20 years, sitting in a lab all semester or going to Africa?” My advice to prospective students is: pack your bags and go! You are about to embark on the most important journey of your life.

What is your favorite memory from your SFS program?
My banda-mate Kaila and I spent the day with the most adorable mother of four who lived in a traditional house made of cow dung and mud. She cooked us the most phenomenal meal I’ve had in my life of ugali and beans and cabbage, and we helped her harvest corn that was planted by a previous group of SFS students and collect water from a pond for cleaning and cooking. She primarily spoke Maa and we had just begun our Swahili studies. We were able to connect with this woman and her children using what broken Swahili we knew between us, laughter, and hand gestures. There are countless other profound memories I have of my time in East Africa, but living as a Maasai for a day and befriending our host mama will always be with me.

Second on that list was shaving my head with two other girls. We decided East Africa was too hot for a full head of hair, and the Kimana Market had a special on haircuts.

What did you gain from your SFS experience?
It’s hard to put into words everything that I gained from my experience at SFS. There are tangible skills I learned such as research methods for non-invasive behavioral studies, Swahili; and hands-on experience with communities faced with the realities, joys, and dangers of living with mega-fauna in their backyard. There are unforgettable experiences, such as traveling alone across the world for the first time, witnessing one of eight rhinos in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, watching a cheetah feast upon an impala she killed not 20 feet from our camp, hugging the orphans who are growing up next to the mural we painted in their playground, singing and dancing with the Maasai during a coming of age ceremony, and being lulled to sleep by the endless sounds of the Serengeti night. And then there are the things such as a new found appreciation for the convenience and luxury of clean running water and electricity, a heightened awareness of our disconnection from the natural world as modern Americans, and a sense that our roots as human beings run deep within each other and begin in Africa.

What do you do for work?
I am a GIS Developer for Oceaneering International in Houston, Texas. I do a lot of application development as well as data analysis for emergency response in the energy industry.

Right now I am working on a disaster response and prevention application with the intention of preventing major environmental disasters from occurring in sensitive environments. This involves creating applications and databases that can go offline and collect and analyze data collected in the field that will determine where specialized equipment needs to be placed in order to prevent major disaster. Next month I will join several of my colleagues in testing this application in the field. We are installing the equipment on two boats and sailing out to a remote area, without Internet connection and very limited communication with shore base.

Seeing this project come to fruition has been quite the feat, and I’m very proud of everyone I’ve worked with. When I return from the maiden voyage, I will have many more stories of success, that I am sure.

What advice do you have for other SFS alumni looking to get into your field?
I never thought I would be in the position that I’m in, I thought I would work for a lab or continue to do field work. But now I find myself working in an industry I was surprised fit in with my education and experience. My advice to fellow alumni is to not be afraid of the unknown. Remember the first time you stepped off the plane into the new country you would call home for the next few months. You took risks, you made new friends, and you did things you never thought possible. Approach your career that way — go into the unknown, be willing to be surprised. And call in your favors — utilize your network to its fullest potential. Sending in blind resumes is great, but never underestimate the power of a recommendation, and don’t be afraid to ask.

Are you connected to other SFS alumni?
I am professionally connected via the Linked In group, and every time I am in the hometown of one of the “cohorts”, I make my best effort to see them, hug them, and reminisce on the adventure of a lifetime.