The History of SFS

On a brisk autumn day in October 1980, a small group of people gathered in Boston, Massachusetts to address what they saw as a critical problem in higher education: widespread environmental illiteracy among young people in the United States.

At the time, environmental studies and sciences curricula were gaining momentum at some of the nation’s top universities, accompanied by a growing acknowledgement of the need to manage the world’s remaining natural resources in a sustainable and equitable fashion. Yet up to this point, those tasked with this monumental responsibility were the scientists. The field-based biologists, the lab-dwelling chemists, and the roving botanists were leading the charge—collecting data, analyzing the results, and telling the public what had to be done.

This small group in Boston saw the potential for a far greater and more inclusive movement. What if concerned individuals in all professions around the world could be educated and enlisted in the effort to protect our planet and all its resources? Why couldn’t the next generation of environmental leaders include communicators, managers, businesspeople, and government leaders? After all, the Earth is home to each and every one of us, and we’ve all got a valuable role to play in helping ensure its success for generations to come.

It was with this vision in mind that The School for Field Studies was founded. Less than a year later, in the summer of 1981, SFS sent its first 75 students into the field. Even while national interest in study abroad was facing a slump, this cohort of students set out to unconventional destinations around the world—Kenya, Iceland, Belize, and others—to experience different approaches to sustainability and conservation firsthand. Over the years, SFS programs have operated in a total of 20 countries and 15 states, and semester-length programs were introduced; by 1995 the School had transitioned entirely to Center-based programs with a strong commitment to local communities.

Today SFS is known throughout the United States as the premier environmental study abroad program for undergraduates. Over 150 colleges and universities are affiliated with SFS and more than 18,000 students from the U.S. and abroad have participated in our programs. SFS operates fully staffed field stations in Australia, Bhutan, Cambodia, Chile, Costa Rica, Kenya, Panama, Peru, Tanzania, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Our faculty and directors maintain close research relationships with the communities in which we are located. While the world has changed immensely since 1980, we believe it is more critical than ever to inspire and educate young environmental leaders, and we move forward with renewed energy and commitment to our core values.