Posted: June 9, 2016
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Lessons from Kenya

This essay was originally published by Denison University, Off-Campus Study.

Dylan Beach majored in biology and traveled to Kenya in the spring of his junior year at Denison. He reflects on his time in Kenya and how that experience sparked a new direction for his life.

My career trajectory has been sinuous, always threatening to change in a good way. Throughout my entire early life I imagined myself as a veterinarian. It was the logical path of a smart animal lover. My abroad experience, however, motivated the first pivot. I saw other ways a smart animal lover could have impact.

I studied abroad in Kenya with The School for Field Studies (SFS) in the spring of 2009, in a program that was geared towards wildlife management studies. I saw how the field of wildlife management was deciding the fate of thousands of animals with the creation of management plans.

Wildlife biologists were out in the field shaping the landscape — so much cooler than shaving the plaque from the teeth of a pampered Pomeranian. More importantly, though, SFS Kenya showed me how wildlife management is so intimately tied to people. Lessons from Kenya continued to show up in my life.

Immediately after Denison I worked as a wildlife specialist with the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Then I got a master’s degree at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, SK, Canada. (Yes, it’s cold there. So cold that you cry and then your tears freeze on your eyeballs. But that’s neither here nor there.)

My thesis tested scenario planning as a tool to create wildlife management goals in the Yukon Territory. This work was incredibly holistic. It identified goals for wildlife while simultaneously considering the people that would be affected. My motivation to be inclusive of people factors has roots from my time in Kenya.

Recently, as a Fellow with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, I helped the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge re-frame its strategy for climate change adaptation. I helped the refuge see that in order to be successful with their landscape-scale ambitions, they have to involve the other affected parties. They have to consider what incentives each affected party has to adapt to climate change impacts. Otherwise they will continue to tackle a challenge that is far too big for them alone. Again, considering incentives for others in this example has roots from my time in Kenya.

In Kenya, I realized that the greatest impacts that wildlife faces are from people. I love wildlife and wild spaces, and I knew that I needed to do something with my life that helped. Learning more about climate change and the impacts that corporations and industry have on accelerating the issue, I realized I needed to be active in the corporate space.

At the time of writing this I work for Avery Dennison, a Fortune 400 company, helping to manage sustainability initiatives within their global supply chain. For a company that buys roughly $1 billion of paper fiber as inputs to make its products, increasing the amount of fiber that comes from certified sustainable forests can have an enormous positive impact on wild spaces.

This is all to say that your abroad experience can have an impact on your future career trajectory. Ideas and ideals that I discovered while abroad have stuck and influence me daily. It has taken me from thinking I would work in a sterile examination room, to the woods, to the boardroom (well, a cubicle…for now), all with an eye towards having my desired impact on the world.

Abroad education is in experiencing the place.

When abroad get out there and do stuff. Have real experiences. Do as the locals do. Insert some other clichéd phrase. Much of the learning opportunities while abroad come from having experiences that are impossible to have at Denison, or anywhere in the U.S. for that matter.

I remember the courses I took in Kenya, but what I remember most fondly is the place itself. The iron-rich red soil contrasting with the blue sky on the low horizon, the intricately patterned fabrics worn by local Maasai women, watching purple-tongued giraffes pull leaves from acacia trees.

The night sky was enveloping and disorienting. Without electricity, the nights were dark and the sky seemed to connect to the ground, becoming one continuous plane. Stars reached low to the flat horizon and were brilliant and compelling. You needed just walk and join them in the sky. The world was big and beautiful in those moments.

I also remember the incredible people with whom I shared my abroad time. We give updates on our lives to each other and marvel at the amazing heights each of us have already reached. It is a powerfully inspiring network of people.

While in Kenya, I tried half a dozen fruits that are not commercially available. Major taste bud expansion. One fruit, locally known as matongwa, tasted like apple pie. Incredible. I ate the weirdly chalky flesh of seeds from a baobob tree, the type of tree that Rafiki calls home in the Lion King. I have stories for days.

Just the idea that there are things out in the world that you have never imagined is a powerful lesson that you can’t quite grasp until you are experiencing it. Then, it blows your mind when you realize that these unimaginable things are other peoples’ daily reality. People live differently and it’s both okay and awesome. In this realization you can unlock open-mindedness, understand the true value of diversity, and begin to see how blending perspectives can set you apart from people who only see one way of doing things.

Apply to study abroad. You have no idea how it will change you, only that it will be for the better.

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