Parks and People: Students study conservation in Tanzania

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Julia Walker arrived in Tanzania to study at Udzungwa Mountains National Park knowing she wanted to pursue a career in tourism, but she did not have a clear understanding of all that is possible in the field, such as working for an ecolodge or conducting field work.

“Before, I simply knew I wanted to work in tourism, but now I have a real image of what that will be like,” said Walker, who is majoring in recreation, park and tourism management (RPTM). “I could still see myself planning trips like I originally intended, but I am also exploring perhaps going to graduate school and doing field work in other countries. I'm really excited about these new possibilities because this program really broadened my horizons in terms of what I can do.”

Parks and People: Conservation of Nature and Community is a six-week interdisciplinary study abroad summer program offered through the College of Arts and Architecture and the College of Health and Human Development.

“This program opened my future to possibilities I did not even know existed. It changed my career plans in the best way and helped to give my plans focus for the future,” Walker said. “Through my experience in the field, villages and national parks, I learned so much about tourism and its effects. I also had the chance to see the issues in the local communities and the effect tourism can have on communities.”

Kilombero Valley and Udzungwa Mountains

Kilombero Valley and Udzungwa Mountains in Tanzania. 

Image: Carter Hunt

Led by Penn State faculty members who conduct research at the park — Larry Gorenflo, professor of landscape architecture, and Carter Hunt, assistant professor of recreation, park and tourism management — the program involves Tanzanian universities, government agencies, international nongovernment organizations, and other researchers, in a collaborative way that exposes students to a wealth of interdisciplinary and inter-organizational expertise.

“The program is guided by research interests, and we incorporate students in each season’s field activities,” said Gorenflo. “The research emphasizes the challenge of conserving nature amid human poverty, a fundamental issue in the tropics. But for the students, the greatest impact is experiencing life in a rural village, learning about another cultural and natural setting. Experiences such as those found in this program are what inspired Carter and me as young students, and ultimately led us to do what we do today.”

The goal of the program, Hunt said, is to expose Penn State students to dramatically different social and environmental realities in a lesser developed country, like Tanzania, and give students an opportunity to confront local environmental conservation and human development challenges through applied research and design projects that correspond to their programs of study at Penn State.

“This program is a great means of dovetailing many of the University’s strategic initiatives by providing highly engaged and experiential scholarship, offering internationalized curriculum relevant to numerous majors at Penn State, integrating sustainability and systems thinking, promoting global citizenry, and extending the impact of Penn State activities into new regions of the world,” Hunt said.

The program allows students from all backgrounds to gain hands-on experience in the principles of environmental design and land-use planning through an applied community design workshop and field trips to Udzungwa and other parks, towns and villages to observe and document land-use and biodiversity.

The 2016 trip included both undergraduate and graduate students, primarily from landscape architecture, geography, and recreation, park and tourism management. Students documented their experiences through journal entries.

One landscape architecture graduate student, a native of China, said in a journal entry that the service-learning component of the trip was particularly valuable.

“I consider [service learning] as a win-win learning process … [where] everybody can gain a lot of different knowledge and understand different aspects of a certain thing, which is vital for establishing critical thinking ability,” the student wrote.

An undergraduate major in landscape architecture wrote, “Before coming on this trip, I was unsure about where I fit into the landscape architecture profession and what I could bring to the table that was different from others,” said. “This trip has made it clear to me that I am meant to produce designs that help people who are most deserving.”

Students earn 9 credits through the program in three interrelated courses. Offered since 2010, this is the first time the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management has co-sponsored the project.

“I’m proud to deliver this program alongside Dr. Gorenflo because I believe it is truly transformative for students. The immersion, rigor and diversity of experiences provided during this trip will influence the trajectory of a student’s career path toward more meaningful applications of their skills, abilities and curiosity,” Hunt said. “The students’ understanding of the challenges their generation will face in combining effective management of environmental resources with the needs of rapidly growing populations is vastly expanded, and in the process, they’ve come to learn that they share much more in common with people on the opposite side of the world than they would otherwise have realized.”

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Last Updated August 22, 2016