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From Belize to the Balkans, Pingry Launches its First Round of Global Field Studies Courses

It was the end of June. In two days, a group of 13 adventurous Upper Schoolers and three Pingry faculty would find themselves—energized yet bleary-eyed after a 4 a.m. rendezvous at Newark Airport—in San Pedro, Belize. But first, in preparation for their 10-day adventure in marine ecology, they were honing their snorkeling skills and practicing with their gear a bit closer to home, in Beinecke Pool.

A post-snorkel group photo in Belize. 

The purpose of their 3,000 mile voyage to San Pedro wasn't only to soak in the natural splendor of the world's third largest coral reef system. With Upper School biology teachers Deirdre O'Mara P '17, '19, '21, Graham Touhey, and Middle School science teacher Ramsay Vehslage, they were also going to conduct research with New England College professor Dr. Eric Simon, recording new data and comparing it against older data sets to measure the reef's biodiversity and fish abundance. The physical demands would be great. After several hours in Beinecke Pool, they were, if not entirely ready, at least forewarned.

At the same time that morning, in a classroom down the hall, seven students gathered, fortifying themselves with bagels and cream cheese, for a pre-departure meeting of another sort. This group, under the guidance of Upper School History Chair Dr. Megan Jones and history teacher Julia Dunbar, were headed on a 13-day voyage to the Balkans (Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina, specifically) to explore the region's complex melding of nationalism and religion. After a few ice-breaker activities, they turned to the "essential question" they were hoping to address during the course of their travels: What is the future of the nation-state? "This region seemed like a good case study to answer the question," explained Dr. Jones to the students. "Nationalism is a very present, contemporary issue today, but throughout the 20th century, this region has been immersed in national conflict. We want you to look at the historic roots of nationalism—Where did it come from? How did it develop? And from there, what will become of it going forward?"

Balkans group in front of St. Mark's Church in Zagreb, Croatia.

Recent graduate Iman Khan '18, who was about to embark on her first Pingry travel program with Dr. Jones and Ms. Dunbar, was more than ready to dive in. What was she most excited about? "Just immersing myself in a place that I have never immersed myself in before. And the fact that the Balkans isn't a place many people visit," she said. "I was drawn to this program because I know about the Bosnian genocide [at Srbrencia], and I'm very interested in learning how people throughout history and now create 'the other,' this idea of ethnocentrism and thinking that your race or your religion is above someone else. I think it's important as an American to understand what nationalism means."

While vastly different locations and distinctive in their scope—one based on scientific research and the other, historical exploration—both the Belize and Balkans trips represent two of the five faculty-led Global Field Studies courses launched this summer. For many years, Pingry has offered a variety of travel opportunities to its students, but the Global Field Studies courses—the epitome of experiential education—overseen by Director of Global Education Jeff Jewett, involve more academic rigor and, as a result, confer academic credit. Emphasis is placed on pre-travel meetings and post-travel reflections. Through a range of assignments, students are expected to prepare for their adventures, to understand the region and the people they're about to visit, and to thoughtfully consider the impact of their experience when they return.

Fast forward two weeks, when the intrepid Pingry travelers return to New Jersey from their respective overseas adventures. It is clear their experiences were transformative.

Luc Francis '21 snorkeling in Belize. 

"I think the most memorable moment on the trip was when I was sitting on Goliath [a ship that belongs to Dr. Kenneth Mattes, who directs Belize TREC, an educational organization that Pingry partnered with on their trip]. I was looking out into the horizon from the top of the ship and realized the true vastness of the ocean," recalls Luc Francis '21. "We had just come in from a snorkel in Mexico Rocks, a protected portion of the Belizean Barrier Reef. This area seemed so big to me, but it seemed incredibly small in comparison to the ocean I was now looking at. It made me realize how close-minded I am. Not necessarily ignorance, but an unawareness. I had become so familiar with what I knew that I lacked the understanding of what I hadn't experienced. . . I was able to immerse myself in two worlds that I was previously unfamiliar with: a foreign country and a barrier reef. All in all, it was a truly humbling experience, and I learned much more than just the names of fish. I truly found a better understanding of the world around me and the importance of leaving your comfort zone."

In the Balkans, did Iman come away with a better understanding—from both a historic and current-day perspective—of the tension between nationalism and religion? An excerpt from her post on the trip's blog, after a day spent in Sarajevo visiting a museum dedicated to the Bosnian genocide, provides an answer. She writes ". . . it is very difficult when you learn about atrocities such as this. It makes you wonder, what if that was me in that situation? Would anyone help me? Or, how could this have happened? How could we as humans get to a point where our ideas of another group of people as being inferior and the 'other' can become such an integral part of our belief system that we would then use that to justify our crimes against humanity? Why do we keep repeating our past; why won't we learn from our past? Such questions and thoughts are difficult, but also invaluable to reflect on. . . I am grateful to be on this trip and experiencing all that I am."

For more photos and first-hand accounts, visit the Balkans blog and the Belize blog.

** The other three Global Field Studies courses launched this summer:
Peru with Purpose: The Denan Project & Sustainable Development
Borders of My Perception: Exploring Immigration in Germany & the USA
Pura Vida: Leadership and Community Development in Costa Rica (Middle Schoolers only)

Contact: Andrea Dawson, Senior Writer,