Sam here, ELI Africa’s new ELI Scholar until June 2013. What an adventure it’s been to get to this beautiful country. I’m feeling a solid mixture of relief and excitement that I’m finally writing on the blog. See I was actually supposed to arrive towards the end of July, just on the tail end of the ELI Fellows’ summer in Mauritius, but ended up spending just over a month in Johannesburg, South Africa. Unbeknownst to me or anyone at ELI Africa, the regulations for work permits to enter Mauritius changed several weeks before my flight pulled into the gate. So instead of getting a stamp and a wave when I handed over my paperwork to the immigration officer, I spent about an hour talking with officers about how the Mauritian Embassy in the US informed me that my “volunteer” status required no permits. Apparently however, several Russians were caught smuggling arms through the country, along with several other less than wanted activities, and it turned out that I needed both a work and residence permit. Which takes between 30-90 days to obtain. Never could confirm whether my beard raised an Ruski suspicions. I did at least get to breathe the air of the Mauritian airport road as the officer escorted me outside to explain the situation to Vedant. I was then promptly put on the first flight back to my Johannesburg, my last point of transit during my 44 hour journey to Mauritius, and deported out of the country. On the plus side, the ticket was paid for by the government, so I got deported for free!
Needless to say, this was all unexpected, but I certainly made the most of it. Luckily for me, my aunt and uncle had friends in Johannesburg, who turned out to be the most gracious and welcoming people I’ve ever met. Paul and Isabel and their kids Nicholas and Julian put me (their political refugee as they called me) up in their house for over one whole month, including while they took a two week vacation to Germany. I’m a big believer in paying it forward, and I’ve certainly got a big karma debt to pay. So while Vedant, Vikay, and I sorted out getting all the medical tests and paperwork sent over to Mauritius, I the chance to take advantage of my asylum. Four days visiting the cast from the Lion King on safari in Kruger Park, a trip through Apartheid at Nelson Mandela’s old home and the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto, and watching the Springboks beat Argentina in the now Four Nations rugby tournament were some of the many highlights. I even got to hang out with the great people at Paul’s company Genesis Analytics, where I had my very own desk during my South African stint. My accident vacation could not have been much better. But now, I’m finally here in Mauritius.
Before jumping onto ten month’s worth of keyboard banging filling you in on my experiences with ELI Africa, allow me to first give you a bit of background on who I am. I graduated from Yale College, where I first became friends with Vedant, in May of this year, successfully obtaining a B.A. in Political Science with a concentration in environmental sustainability. Rewinding time for you even further, I was born and bred in Washington DC in the United States, where I spent my younger years balancing life between blacktop diplomacy and meetings with jungle gym lobbyists, as all kids in DC do. As the chubbier kid around, I was a natural at bringing together interested parties and easing tensions over jokes and Lunchable pizzas. As time passed, I lost my 15-year-old baby fat and grew into the quasi-athletic bearded guy I am today. I was big into sports, playing rugby at Yale and both golf and football (I lost as many memories of freshman year crew as I did skin on my hands from rowing) at my high school, Woodrow Wilson.
It was at Wilson that I first encountered my passion for education. Wilson is a DC public school. For those unfamiliar with DCPS, I remember hearing back in the day that we ranked somewhere around #50 or #51 between Puerto Rico and Mississippi in the US public education standings. Now Wilson was definitely one of the better schools in the city- kids from every upbringing and background, amazing teachers, great class selection, the finest security team…- but it was not without its sizable share of problems. I genuinely didn’t know that most high schoolers didn’t walk through metal detectors until I got to Yale. Putting aside the lack of proper financial support and resources, a lot of the students came in from all over the city, without the family support and strong education background that I was lucky to have. If you wanted to succeed at Wilson, it was a great place to go, but there wasn’t really a safety net to catch you if you were falling, and barely had a broom and a dust bin to pick you up once you hit the floor. It really sucked to know those kids’ struggles, and luckily, I got the chance to make a small difference.
As a member of the football team, we had mandatory study halls evvvvvery day before practice, sponsored by the NFL’s Play it Smart program. I threw in those extra v’s because at first, those hours were long and boring, because I usually was done with my homework quickly and had nothing to do. But eventually, those free hours turned into something special. One day, one of my teammates asked me if I could help him with some of his English homework. I had nothing to do, so I spent the next 30 minutes or so working through the boring syntax stuff that we all had to study back in the day. When we were done, another teammate asked for some advice on an essay he was writing. Eventually, I was spending study hall giving my teammates some of the help that they weren’t getting from the school. By my senior year, it took on the new dimension of college application assistance after I heard from one of the guys that all but one of the seniors still hadn’t started applications even though it was November. I got together some of the college counselors, my friends, and some parents, and I’m proud to say that every senior on the team had a college acceptance letter when they graduated. My path was not set in stone, but I knew then that I wanted to spend some part of my life working to help give kids a better chance for their futures.
My time with education was more or less put on hold for the next four years however, with the exception of a summer job working as an SAT tutor. My attention was grabbed by what became in my eyes the most urgent problem facing human civilization: climate change and environmental degradation. Now I have always been a fan of the outdoors. Some of my earliest memories are times spent rolling over the logs in my backyard and spending hours watching pillbugs, centipedes, ants, and all sorts of critters crawl and scamper about. The streams, gullies, and forests of Rock Creek Park, one of the largest urban parks in the world, was a pro quarterback’s stone throw from my house. Camping trips with my Mom, Dad, and brother Seth and fishing trips with the latter two (my mom can get seasick just looking at a rocking boat) were the norm. But until right around the end of my senior year of high school, I had never paid too much attention to the ways that human society interacts with and depends on the environment, nor how we had changed so much of it for the worse in the past several decades.
My perspective completely changed after taking Global Environmental History my freshman year spring at Yale. Professor Harvey Weiss was discussing a particular ancient settlement in Syria he excavated, and how the region faced a sustained drought. The town’s people faced the choice of adapting, moving, or dying. They stayed put, failed to adapt, and the settlement died out. A (LED) lightbulb went off in my head. There is only one planet, and as we currently have no options to move, leaders must help us adapt to the changing climate or all will suffer the consequences. There’s a reason why human civilization only came about after hundreds of thousands of years of homo sapiens grunting around the planet. After the last Ice Age, we finally had a suitable climate, with all of its habitats, weather patterns, and ecosystem services, to sustain agriculture, cities, and the time to sit down from hunting/gathering to think about ways to make life better. And that climate more or less stayed stable on a global level for the past 11,500 years or so. To me, it seems just a bit overconfident and ignorant to believe that society won’t suffer if the global climate changes for the worse. Especially since we’re dealing with food and freshwater security, rapid population growth, and ocean acidification (among many more serious problems) as is… After that class, I chose to focus my studies on the challenges facing humanity and the natural world. Without understanding the dynamic interplay between science, management, and policy, it will be difficult to help change how the systems that govern modern society impact our planet.
And so, I now feel that you have a comfortable understanding of who I am and why I am so excited to be spending the next ten months working with ELI Africa. As the ELI Scholar, I am leading an initiative to promote conservation, climate change awareness, and sustainability practices through environmental education and policy change. Education and the environment: the two things I’ve always dreamed of working on. Scuba diving, field trips with our students, pollution prevention campaigns, and hopefully a bit of rugby should be some of the many moments I will be sharing with everyone until next June. My day at the office is winding to a close, and I think a trip to the beach down the road from my house is a distinct possibility. Until next time, I’ll leave you with a quote from the great fictional basketball superlegend Jackie Moon: Let’s Get Tropical!