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A UC Student Video: “What I Did on Spring Break”

See the dramatic video of a University Honors Program boat trip on the Amazon River.

Date: 4/22/2014 9:30:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Debbie Brawn (Video by John McGill)

UC ingot   It was a spring break trip that was so awe-inspiring, they stopped taking selfies.
 A University Honors seminar to Amazonas, Brazil, lured 20 University of Cincinnati students on a boat with little amenities and no hot water. Overnight accommodations involved two people sharing a bunk bed, a small bathroom per room, and bath showers that came from river water. It was a trip captured on this video produced by John McGill, a UC junior.  It was an experience beyond the classroom that made memories to last a lifetime.

The Amazon River basin is one of the largest, intact, tropical ecosystems in the world. Jodi Shann, a UC professor and director of the Environmental Studies Program in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, led the course and described it as follows: “Students completing this course will be among those with the potential to influence the future, as they will have personally experienced the Amazon River and investigated the issues challenging it today.”

The UC group traveled with Amazon Expeditions, an expedition company founded by legendary Amazonian guide Moacir “Mo” Fortes. His son, Moacir Fortes Jr., has become just as legendary as his father and was the UC group’s guide. “Junior,” as everyone calls the guide, is an expert biologist and naturalist who helped the students identify and learn about the wildlife and plants of the Amazon, as well as informed them of the environmental and sustainability challenges in the region.

pied tamarin
pied tamarin

The sightseeing included spotting a pied tamarin, an endangered monkey species that is nearly extinct because its rainforest habitat has been decimated. In addition, the group saw other species of monkeys, the rare and unusual leaffish, dozens of bird species, fresh water dolphins, caimans, snakes, frogs and three-toed sloths. The UC group traveled more than 600 miles along the Amazon River and the Rio Negro, as they explored firsthand this  tropical ecosystem.

McGill is from Waterloo, Ontario (Canada) and is majoring in the Musical Theatre Program in the College-Conservatory of Music. He says the trip resulted in “incredible memories that will last a lifetime.”

“From fishing for piranhas to swimming with pink river dolphins to playing soccer in a local village, the trip was an amazing experience from beginning to end,” says McGill. “I would recommend a trip like this to anyone looking to broaden their global horizons who isn’t afraid of a little adventure.”

Debbie Brawn, administrative director of the University Honors Program, also accompanied the students on the trip. “The Amazon is often thought of as a mystical place, and indeed it is. It’s the most mystical and enchanting place I’ve ever seen. We even went to a place called the ‘Enchanted Forest.’ As incredible as it is, though, it’s also confronted with complex and challenging issues. This experience exposed our students to those issues. It was such a completely different environment than anything the students had experienced before.”

“The connections we made with the crew and the people we met along the rivers gave us a window into their lives and changed perspectives on our own lives,” says Brawn. “We met people who were very isolated by our standards, with access to little or no technology and no monetary wealth, yet they were very happy, taking in the day-to-day pleasures of life and appreciating its beauty every day. To be immersed into the pure beauty of the region, including in its culture and people is hard to describe,” says Brawn.

“For the first day-and-a-half, we were seeing a lot of students taking ‘selfies’ against an Amazon backdrop,” says Shann.
night monkeys
night monkeys

“Then, we saw them just give that up and realize it was more about being there – experiencing it instead of documenting it for their portfolio. This was a full immersion. We were on a boat for nine days. By the end of the trip, when they were given the option of getting up at 4 a.m. to hear the howler monkeys in the dark, the number of volunteers would exceed the number of people who could actually go, and it was so rewarding to see them get into the trip 100 percent.”

In addition to the video, Shann says several student projects evolved from the trip, including a cookbook with recipes from the boat crew (the crew spoke only Portuguese), a book on medicinal plants, a guidebook on birds of the Amazon and a children’s activity about biodiversity that will be featured at the Cincinnati Children’s Museum. Shann says biomedical engineering major Michael Fitzgerald wrote a children’s book about the experience, all in verse. “When he introduced his book to the class, he said it wasn’t ‘just for any kid, it’s for our kids,’ says Shann. “He created a children’s version of the experience that students can share with their own future children, and still have a shared experience with their fellow students.”

Experiential learning opportunities such as study abroad are aspirations for academic institutions because research has found they can change lives. UC recently joined an initiative by the Institute of International Education (IIE) to double the number of American students who study abroad by the end of the decade. As part of the Generation Study Abroad initiative, UC has launched a stretch goal for 1,700 of its American undergraduates to study abroad by 2019, increasing from the 1,500 target goal previously set in the Academic Master Plan.

“As far as classroom teaching goes, this would be a typical course someone would teach about tropical systems or the Amazon River,” explains Shann. “Then you get the students in the ‘real’ location and you hear them say, ‘This isn’t how I thought it was going to be.’ These are the same students who performed very well on their tests and classroom projects and discussion, but the reality of the trip puts them into an environment that they thought they knew. They discover there’s a big difference between theoretically understanding something and really knowing,” says Shann.
Group photo

Findings from the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) supported how such adventures, described by institutions as high-impact learning experiences, are taking learning beyond the classroom here at UC. The 2013 survey results showed that 71 percent of UC’s seniors reported participating in two or more high-impact learning experiences, such as cooperative education, a service-learning experience or global study, compared with 61 percent of UC’s peer group, 62 percent Carnegie Class comparisons and 66 percent of the state’s 4-year public institution comparison group.

The University Honors Program for academically talented students encompasses the top 7 percent of UC undergraduate students from across colleges and disciplines. University Honors focuses on unique and challenging academic and hands-on experiences that reflect the themes of community engagement, global study, leadership, research and the creative arts. The program serves students from every undergraduate college on campus. The program aims to increase the percentage of its students in study abroad experiences to 75 percent.

The cost of the trip was offset by support from the University Honors Program and UC International. UC International awarded approximately $114,000 in scholarships to students participating in university-wide spring break programs involving a global study experience.