This past fall, Max Sugarman, who grew up in Issaquah, Wash., strayed far from the familiarity of the forested Pacific Northwest and spent a semester studying abroad on the sprawling grasslands of the South African savanna.
“Coming from a forestry-focused program [at UW], it was incredibly different,” says Sugarman, a junior Environmental Science and Resource Management major at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. “The savanna is much more vast, it’s a different climate with different ecosystem drivers and forces, and there’s a lot of megafauna and biodiversity you don’t really encounter here.”
The study abroad program Sugarman chose, “South Africa Semester: African Ecology & Conservation,” is run through Duke University and the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). Founded in 1963, OTS is a nonprofit consortium dedicated to the study of tropical biology and ecosystems. It has grown to include 63 universities, including the University of Washington, and research institutions from Australia, Latin America and the United States.
As part of the Duke program, Sugarman joined a group of 25 students from August to December for 100 days of research in different savanna ecosystems. Their group was based in Kruger National Park, but they ventured to a number of other sites around the country, including Cape Town and some small villages. “We covered a whole swath of South Africa,” he says.
And they didn’t go about their work leisurely. Sugarman says the program was highly intensive, often with eight hours of lecture followed by several full days in the field—rising at 5:30 a.m.—to learn through inquiry and observation. Their primary work during the semester included two projects where they’d develop a question and then carry out the research and analysis in the field. “It was almost entirely hands-on,” he says, “and there was a lot of time to embrace the savanna.”
When they weren’t in the classroom or in the field working, the students occasionally got to go on game drives through the national parks. They’d regularly see baboons, elephants, rhinos and all sorts of incredible creatures, and Sugarman says the savanna landscape actually turned him into a birder.
The fast pace of the program was a challenge, however, as was living in close quarters with his classmates, comprised of 22 Americans and three South Africans. Sometimes they’d stay in upscale quarters; other times they’d be in dorms with 12 to a room; and rarely were there idle moments.
At the same time, Sugarman says the small group size and close contact with professors were also some of the program’s greatest strengths. They had four faculty members for 25 students, as well as a logistics manager and several other support staff. “The really cool thing about the program,” says Sugarman, “is that because you have such a good connection with the faculty, you’re able to mold the program to whatever you want it to be. People there are trying to help you learn and succeed, and you’ll have these professors as long-time supporters.”
Sound like something you’d like to try? Sugarman says the price can look a little daunting on paper, but the program was generous with funding aid and assistance—and he will be the first to recommend it.
“On a personal growth level, it was really invigorating and motivated me to come back to the U.S. and lead a vibrant life,” he says. “On the professional side, going out and doing field research, working with cool faculty, meeting leaders in the field in South Africa and around the world—it has me thinking of doing graduate work in landscape ecology.”
Photos © Max Sugarman.