We swam in the lake, surrounded by millions of jellyfish, and we did not feel a thing. It was like floating in a bath of warm, salty Jell-O. Witnessing evolution up close and personal made a lasting impression.
In 1995, The School for Field Studies opened the Center for Island Management Studies on the island of Babeldaob in the Republic of Palau. The island boasted verdant forests, an offshore reef with more than 625 species of coral and 1400 species of fish, and a turquoise lagoon surrounding the island. Students studied issues relating to economic development on the terrestrial and marine environments on this small and newly independant island nation. Unfortunately, at the time, Babeldaob had no system of roads, electricity, or telephones, and these logistical limitations proved to be too challenging. The Center operated for two semesters before closing its doors.
Kristen Patterson was part of the inaugural SFS semester in Palau while an undergraduate student at the Colby College. She has since traveled many miles, participating as a Peace Corps volunteer, completing an advanced degree in Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development, and working as a senior program officer for The Nature Conservancy’s Africa program. Here are her recollections of this special program and her journey beyond SFS.
Why did you choose SFS as a study abroad program?
I was very interested in field ecology, and marine biology, and at the time I wanted to be the next Jacques Cousteau. I also wanted to live in a foreign country. The program in Palau fulfilled those desires.
Reflecting back on your time in the program, what did you gain from your SFS experience?
We lived in Ulimang, a small village on Babeldaob, Palau’s largest island. It was an exciting time to be in Palau because the country had just become independent in November 1994 after being a US Trust Territory since the end of WWII. There were no paved roads on the entire island, and during our time there, construction began on a 53-mile road that now runs the length of Babeldaob. I imagine that the road must have significant environmental, economic, and cultural impacts.
Logistically, it was a challenging semester, in that we had to figure out how to work with local fishermen to provide us with seafood on a regular basis, and cook a lot of our own food. I recall baking a lot of banana muffins and eating coconuts almost daily. There wasn’t really a finished ‘center’ for the program that semester, and no precedents had been set for how to do things. We built a composting toilet for our group to use and a garden behind the cement (bomb-proof, we were told) building we lived in. Our instructors were incredibly knowledgeable. Some, like Joel and Ann, had lived in Palau for decades. The challenges faced by the new program were offset by the warmth of the small community in which we lived and the interesting research projects we created and carried out. Fond memories include hunting for crabs at night on the beach with local fishermen, teaching English at the elementary school, and playing a lot of basketball.
What is your most profound or lasting memory from your SFS program?
Swimming with the jellyfish in “”Jellyfish Lake.”” The lake is located on one of the Rock Islands south of Babeldaob. After the last ice age, seawater seeped into a low-lying part of the tiny island and brought in jellyfish and other larvae. Over time, because of the separation from the ocean and the lack of predators, the jellyfish became ‘stingless’ (they actually do still have stingers, they are just very weak). We swam in the lake, surrounded by millions of jellyfish, and we did not feel a thing. It was like floating in a bath of warm, salty Jell-O. Witnessing evolution up close and personal made a lasting impression.
What do you do for work?
I am the Program Officer for The Nature Conservancy’s new Africa program, which was created in 2006. I’m based in their headquarters in Arlington, VA (just across the river from Washington, D.C.).
I’m the jack of all trades for the program. My job is a mix of fundraising (mainly private, but also public funding), partnership development, policy, and administrative support. The Conservancy is a huge organization. There are over 4,000 employees working in all 50 U.S. states and over 30 countries. As a new program, part of my job on the Africa team is to tap into the knowledge of other staff in the US and around the world to help support our nascent work in Africa.
We are a dispersed team, and I am the only person based in Arlington. I serve as the ‘face’ of the Africa program in the DC metro area, both internally within the Conservancy and externally with partner organizations like the African Wildlife Foundation, the Jane Goodall Institute, and Green Belt Movement, as well as USAID and the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group. I also spend a lot of time in conference calls and on Skype.
On a daily basis, I might provide information about our projects to a state chapter fundraiser who has a donor who’s interested in supporting our work in Africa, or give a presentation to a state chapter board about the Africa Program. I might meet with one of our partner organizations to edit a new grant agreement or get an update on project progress. I might attend a lecture on land tenure in East Africa at a think-tank in DC, or meet with a member of our climate change team to discuss REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) in Africa.
Describe an interesting project you’ve worked on.
I worked in Madagascar from 2005 to 2007 as a USAID Population-Environment fellow. During my time there, I worked with a local NGO to secure a grant from the University of California-Berkeley’s Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) small grant program for alumni (I am a 2006 ELP alum). The grant was designed to provide potable water, sanitary latrines, and improved hygiene to a rural school district outside of the city where I lived. The project, called Sekoly Madio (Clean Schools) covered 15 schools and 3,760 students. The curriculum that we developed complemented the standard elementary school curriculum, and was adopted by the government nationwide as a means of improving the health of all school children in Madagascar.
Did your SFS experience contribute to where you ended up?
I’d like to think so. My time in Palau increased my desire to join the Peace Corps after college, which was the most defining experience of my life. Early exposure to the combination of ecological field work and community interaction in Palau commenced the process of widening my horizons beyond a purely biological focus. I found Palau’s strong marine conservation ethic, known as Bul, especially fascinating, and have remained interested in terrestrial and marine tenure systems ever since.
What advice do you have for other SFS alumni looking to get into your field?
Get significant field-based experience overseas early on in your career if you are interested in the international conservation or development field, and return to the field every few years. Your decisions are then based on actual on-the-ground experiences, which provide you with more credibility. I wish someone had told me to take a class in budgeting and finance, skills which come in handy in the non-profit and grant-making world.