A Fragile Fiji Study Abroad to explore climate change

When Alex Killion and Tracy Swem submitted their idea for a Michigan State University College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) Study Abroad program in Fiji, they knew it would be popular.

May 7, 2015

When Alex Killion and Tracy Swem submitted their idea for a Michigan State University College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) Study Abroad program in Fiji, they knew it would be popular. But they didn’t expect it to fill up so fast.

The pair, along with 14 undergraduate students and a faculty member, leave May 9 on a three-week journey to Fiji to study the effects of climate change. Their Study Abroad program is “A Fragile Fiji: Integrating Ecosystems and Human Dimensions in the Face of Climate Change.”

The Fragile Fiji Study Abroad is the first student-designed and -led program in the CANR and at MSU. Swem and Killion are master’s degree students in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

“Fiji is a great place to study the effects of climate change because noticeable impacts such as sea-level rise, the frequency of intense weather events and changes in precipitation pattern directly impact the livelihoods of native Fijians,” Swem said. “We’ll study the ecology, ecotourism and agriculture of three different socioeconomic regions of Fiji that are affected by climate change.” 

Students majoring in computer science, supply chain management, zoology and microbiology are joining their counterparts from the CANR, including majors in community sustainability, dietetics, environmental sustainability, and fisheries and wildlife on the trip. 

“That’s one of the best things we see with this program,” Killion said. “One of our goals for offering the trip was to attract students from diverse majors and have them work together to understand climate change impacts and to identify solutions. We knew that students in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources would be interested in this trip, but to have so many other majors represented is important because climate change doesn’t impact individual people or majors -- it truly is a global issue that affects us all.” 

“Students on the trip will be guests in native villages, where they are expected to take part in traditional family life,” Swem said.

While in the villages, students will work in a marine protected area, help native Fijians with daily activities such as farming, processing coconuts, weaving and subsistence fishing. Students will also participate in ongoing conservation programs such as mangrove planting.  Having students stay in a village, participate in family life and be able to communicate one-on-one with Fijians will help students understand the role that each family plays in the village.

“Studying abroad as an undergraduate can be a life-changing event,” said Gary Roloff, associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, the faculty instructor for the Fiji trip. “Getting students outside the classroom and putting what they’ve learned into practice helps prepare students for their future careers.”

The 14 MSU students will also spend two days with KokoSiga Pacific, a Fiji-based agribusiness firm whose main international products are vanilla and cocoa. KokoSiga Pacific has a history of working with native Fijians on planting climate-resilient crops. Fiji’s major exported crop is currently sugar, but efforts are under way to diversify the export crops and to improve food security in the face of climate change. The MSU group will visit organic farms and cooperatives during this portion of the trip.

The group will also participate in a dolphin-watch ecotourism project and contribute data to some research at the University of the South Pacific. They will also visit a mountainous region of Fiji and tour a variety of ecosystems.

The project will conclude with a visit to the ”touristy” area of Fiji, where they will get firsthand experience of how tourism can negatively affect the environment, culture and sustainability of this island nation.

“Our goal is really to show our students what’s behind the pictures they see of a Fiji that is known only as a resort,” Swem said. “We’re looking forward to this trip – during our meetings, there’s a real energy among the group.”

The Fragile Fiji Study Abroad program received a Dean’s Choice Award from the MSU Federal Credit Union in 2013. The $2,500 award allowed Swem and Killion to travel to Fiji to set the curriculum and visits for the trip.

Students on the trip will be blogging about their adventures whenever they can at www.fijiabroad.com.

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