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McPherson College Students Experience Transformational Travel Class

Transformational is the word Dustin Wilgers, associate professor of biology at McPherson College, uses to describe the travel experience class he led to Ecuador this spring to study issues of the Amazon rainforest. The nine-day trip took Professor Wilgers, three students, and one guest deep into the Amazon rainforest where they met with people from four different indigenous tribes to learn how globalization, particularly oil exploration, has changed their culture.

“The goal of the trip was to understand how industry affects other people,” Wilgers said. “We literally followed a giant oil pipeline along the road that took us to the rainforest. It was a constant reminder of why we were there.”

Students taking the class and traveling with Wilgers included Morgan Abbott and Nathen Jones, environmental stewardship majors. Jaden Hilgers, winner of the McPherson College Global Enterprise Challenge, earned a spot on the trip after his proposal was selected by the New Community Project, the organization that coordinated the learning tour. Hilgers’ project will use photos, video and branding to give voice to the marginalized people of the Ecuadorian rainforest for the New Community Project.

After arriving in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, the travel group road a bus over the Andes Mountains and then took a motorized boat through the Cuyabeno Wildlife Preserve and into the rainforest. They slept in tents for several nights during their trip and were without phone service and only limited electricity daily. They hiked into five different communities and were able to meet with the shamans in each one.

“The shaman is the leader of each community and would perform protective rituals over us,” Wilgers said. “We visited with them about how they lived and heard an over-arching theme that oil was not welcome. They communicated that the connection to a monetary system was moving them away from the life style they had known for hundreds of years.”

Wilgers said many of the shamans were concerned that younger generations of their community were not interested in learning about the traditional ways of their culture and fear that their knowledge and information of nature and culture is at risk of being lost.

“I think one of the most interesting parts of the experience was the complicated relationship between oil and outside influences with traditional culture and conservation,” Jaden Hilgers said. “Oil companies would initially offer jobs and communities to local people but often at the expense of their way of life and conservation efforts.”

The travel experience class focus was to study the effects of globalization; however, there was no escaping the beauty, wonder, and richness of the rainforest. And although they had all seen photographs of it, Professor Wilgers said the rainforest was much more diverse than he ever expected and found it difficult to take it all in.

“It was impossible to process,” Wilgers said. “You could stand in a single spot and see thirty different species of trees. The rainforest is so dense it was really hard to spot animals. You really had to look hard to see the wildlife. It was impossible to see everything.”

One of the highlights of the trip for Hilgers was photographing the Cascada Magica waterfall early on the trip. Taking in the spectacular view, Hilgers said he realized the Amazon is an amazing place.

“As I took in the sights and sounds of the Amazon, I also tried to capture as much of it as possible in photos and video to provide to the New Community Project and promote not only conservation in Ecuador, but also this learning experience,” Hilgers said. “Fortunately, there were plenty of opportunities to capture the tremendous beauty of the landscape as well as the lives of the people who live there.”

This was the first international travel class for Professor Wilgers, but he hopes it will not be the last. He would like to make the trip to Ecuador a regular course offering and is looking at other learning tour opportunities to add in the future.

McPherson College students had the opportunity to experience different cultures and environments that spanned the globe during the 2018 academic year. In January, students traveled with Herb Smith, professor of philosophy and religion, to Rwanda; with Matthew Porter, assistant professor of business, for a business focused trip to Australia; and with Rick Tyler, professor of speech and theatre, for a theatre trip to New York City. Individual students also spent semesters abroad in London and in Germany.