Lessons From the Field

By Joe Keohane

Photos by Joe Keohane

Boston University Trustee Emerita Terry Andreas (’64) took an unusual path for a journalism major. Deeply concerned about depletion of the planet’s resources, she founded the School for Field Studies, now America’s oldest and largest undergraduate environmental study abroad program. At sites all over the developing world, the school’s students and professors are working with local communities to balance economic growth with ecological preservation, thanks to Andreas—who says she couldn’t have done it without BU.

Students at the School for Field Studies in Costa Rica

Students at the School for Field Studies in Costa Rica

Dawn breaks on the School for Field Studies’ Costa Rica station. The sleeping campus sits atop a hill in Atenas—a small, rural town about an hour northwest of San José, the country’s capital. Sleeping, that is, until a neighbor’s rooster goes off like an air raid siren. Soon, two dozen students shuffle sluggishly into the kitchen to slap together ham sandwiches for the day ahead.

Once outside, the students and three professors pile into a bus waiting at the gate. Gerardo Avalos, the son of Costa Rican coffee farmers who directs the station, climbs aboard last. Avalos’ PhD is in plant physiological ecology, but his passion is birds. Field guide in hand, he passes the ride regaling students with facts about our feathered friends.

The bus’s destination is Monteverde, the cloud forest sitting astride the Continental Divide. Monteverde is one of the most important nature reserves in a small country known for such places. Twenty-seven percent of the land in Costa Rica is protected, and the little country hosts 5 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.

Wending its way down to the Rio Grande valley, the bus passes sleek billboards in English advertising casinos and newly built condos for the American and European retirees who have been flocking to the area in recent years, driving up real-estate prices and taxing the area’s natural resources. Many of these ads measure distance in miles for
the Americans.

Ninety minutes later, the bus travels through Santa Elena, the closest town to Monteverde, and the beneficiary of much of the hotel expenditures of the ecotourists who go there in ever-increasing numbers each year. Santa Elena is swelling these days. An oversized shopping mall is under construction there, causing some consternation locally.

The purpose of this trip is to observe firsthand the stresses between rising tourist traffic and the plant and animal life of the forest at Monteverde. And it’s this intersection of ecology, economics and development that lies at the heart of the School for Field Studies’ mission in Costa Rica, and in its other centers around the world. More than 13,000 students have participated in the innovative program since its inception three decades ago, working hands-on in the field with staff professors and the community to address the myriad dilemmas created by globalization, from watershed management to habitat loss to poverty. Its multidisciplinary approach geared to intractable 21st-century problems has been lauded by researchers, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and governments around the world. But it couldn’t have had a more modest start. It all began one day back in the late 1970s, when a restless, COM-educated, stay-at-home mother of two found herself having a conversation with a few friends.

Beyond “Tree-hugging”


Exploring in Costa Rica

“Four of us were discussing how you learn things,” Terry Andreas (’64) recalls as she sits by a noisy grey parrot named Tarzan in her Manhattan apartment. “We were talking about the environment,” she says, “which was thought to be kind of a nutty subject at the time. We didn’t think that the hug-a-tree movement was going to go very far. And it was distressing to think that people didn’t understand that because they drank water and breathed air, it was probably worthwhile to pay attention to those things.”

In 1978, Andreas and her friends organized a summer trip for a few teenagers to an island off Marblehead, Mass., to observe nature and discuss the human toll on it. When that went well, they decided to expand it. In 1979 they recruited 17 college students, a professor and an Outward Bound trainer for a trip to Kenya to do some research on giraffes and rhinos. “The kids were absolutely mesmerized,” she says. They continued summer trips for another four years, but soon decided to extend the program to whole semesters and hire more full-time staff. As interest grew, they realized it wouldn’t do to have the students camping out for three months, so in 1986 they began renting property to serve as bases. “Then we evolved from renting into buying our own centers, so we could make sure these kids were safe,” she says. They selected sites based on availability of land and topics to study.

Today, the School for Field Studies, chaired by Andreas and headquartered in Salem, Mass., owns centers in Costa Rica, Kenya, Mexico, Australia and the Turks & Caicos islands. All work closely with local officials and residents, summoning the collective efforts of the professors who pinpoint problems and direct the research, and of the students who work with them, gaining experience in the field, learning about diverse cultures, and earning academic credit in the bargain. (See “The Comm Ave. Connection,” at right.)

Collective Brain Power

As the bus nears Monteverde, Avalos tells the students about plants they may encounter in the forest—like the bountiful mucuna. It looks cute, like a fuzzy peapod. But the mucuna can do some damage. “They have hairs that get inside your skin,” Avalos says. “Very painful. You have to use butter to get them out. Don’t pet the mucuna.”

The road turns to rutted dirt, and as the bus climbs higher toward the blanket of clouds that hangs over Monteverde, it turns muddy. It’s a teeth-rattling ride. The students get off the bus, don rain gear and start the hike up into the mountains. The trail gets muddier as they go. It rains steadily most of the way. Throughout, they listen intently to the professors’ running commentary on the animal and plant life in Monteverde. How the clouds blow up the mountain, cooling as they go, turning to condensation for the multitude of flora and fauna that require lots of water to survive; how rising temperatures and deforestation make those clouds climb ever higher before condensing, pushing animals and plants further north in search of a habitat that will sustain them. The hike is a mucky, challenging one, over three hours to the top, and an hour or so back to the biological research station where they’ll be staying for the night.


Students at the School for Field Studies in Costa Rica

It’s a busy day: up at 5 a.m., three hours of driving, four hours of hiking, roughly three hours of classes, all topped off with a visit to a club in Monteverde where the students can practice the dance steps they’ve learned in their class on Costa Rican culture. But it’s hardly unusual. The SFS program is an intensive, immersive experience, packed with classes and research activities, usually from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., six days a week.

“It was a pretty atypical study abroad program,” says COM grad Danny Hayes (’07), who studied at the SFS Costa Rica site in fall 2006. “The way of learning was so different, and so cool, but it was still all part of the BU experience.”

Immersion in the scientific method, economics lectures and an unfamiliar environment helped make him a better journalist, Hayes says. Today he writes for Bitch, a feminist magazine in Portland, Ore. His SFS experience “really helped me think about how feminism and social activism of all kinds connect,” he says. “People don’t think of it, but the way we learned about the environment being ignored, and the economics of it, was similar to the way women’s issues were ignored.

“It gave me a more global perspective. It really did a good job of integrating social, economic and political strands. It just helped me connect all the dots. It broadened my critical thinking. I’m less quick to jump to conclusions now. I try to look at things from a perspective I wouldn’t have otherwise. [I now question] things that might seem really good on the surface. Definitely, for the journalism I’m doing at Bitch, it helped a lot.”

In both the semester and summer programs, students take up a directed research project at the end. This involves contributing with a professor to any one of SFS’s several five-year research efforts. These long-term undertakings are devised by the professors, in collaboration with the community and/or the government and NGOs.

The projects vary, depending on locale. In Kenya, for instance, where a key focus is public health, the local SFS station is conducting the first-ever census of their area. In Mexico, they’re studying the worsening depletion of fish stocks in Baja. SFS Costa Rica is focusing on the problem of poaching in national parks, and trying to figure out whether some of the most highly sought-after prizes—in their case, heart of palm—can be grown outside the protected zones in order to preserve the health of the parks as well as the people who eat the traditional food. They’re also working with the parks to better manage the increasing number of tourists.

Looking Ahead

The roughly 500 students who attend SFS each year pay tuition, but the program’s overhead expenses are high, and additional independent fundraising is necessary. “We just scrape by,” says Andreas. “There’s always something. We were hit by three hurricanes last year—two in the Pacific and one in the Caribbean. And this year we have to build a road [at the station] in Australia. It’s never a dull moment.”

The plans for the Costa Rica field station are relatively modest. The research, of course, must continue apace. They want to install some solar panels on the roof of the dormitory so students can enjoy warm showers. They’re expanding the site’s farm in an effort to make the school more self-sufficient. All this, of course, costs money. And then there are the iguanas, which are everywhere, including on the corrugated iron roof of the dormitory, which they scrape noisily, and from which they occasionally urinate on students. They’ve been waging war on the farm lately, and the situation is approaching a breaking point. “The neighbors tell us, ‘It’s time for you guys to start killing iguanas,’” says Avalos. But, he says, as with his work with the parks and the surrounding communities, he’s more inclined to figure out a way to share.

Additional reporting by Patrick Kennedy.

The Comm Ave. Connection

By Patrick Kennedy

The School for Field Studies is accredited by Boston University. That means enrollees—who come from more than 275 colleges and universities across the country to spend a semester or summer abroad with SFS—are officially registered BU students who receive transcripts from the University. With BU’s imprimatur, those grades transfer to the students’ home institutions. The BU College of Arts & Sciences dean’s office reviews SFS professors’ curricula vitae, and the University approves all SFS courses.

In addition, more than 200 BU students have participated in the program. “The relationship with SFS is valuable to BU,” says Boston University Assistant Director for External Programs David Lamitie, “because it provides students with additional options for study abroad and research in destinations and on topics not fully covered by our own offerings. SFS is an innovative leader in the field of thematic, experience-based learning, and BU students benefit from their expertise.”

And in turn, BU has “absolutely” been a resource for SFS, says founder and chair Terry Andreas (’64). Through the accreditation process, “they’ve kept me honest. They asked all the right questions…BU has been tremendously helpful. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

The Terrier network doesn’t end there. Andreas’ son, George Bevis (ENG’00), also sits on the SFS board, as does her BU classmate Judith Winslow (CAS’64). And the school’s president, Bonnie Clendenning, is the former executive director of a Boston University center, the Archaeological Institute of America.

Andreas has long had a close relationship with BU. Now a trustee emerita, she served on the BU Board of Trustees for 17 years. (She recently retired due to term limits, but says she will stay active at her alma mater.) Andreas has given generously to BU over the years, including a large gift to COM’s photojournalism program. She has served on the board of the BU Academy, and in 1992 she earned BU’s Alumni Award for Distinguished Service to the Community. Recently, she hired COM’s AdLab students to do publicity for her new pet shop in Manhattan, Uptown Birds. “They did a great job!” she says. “I was so impressed.”

Not surprisingly, Andreas places a high value on education. “It’s important to stay in school as long as you can and learn from everybody you can,” she says. That realization hit home when she was at COM, she adds. After working a part-time telemarketing job for which she felt ill-equipped, “when I then sat in my classes, it became clear to me that what they were teaching, and what I was learning, had a very practical impact on life,” she explains. “I realized I would actually use the information that I was learning in my classes, and that gave new meaning to the subject matter.”

Sure enough, in the early days of SFS, when Andreas had to prepare promotional materials and draft grant proposals, “It was never difficult to sit down and write,” she says, because “at COM, you learned to just keep doing it,” as well as to keep in mind “that you’re communicating with someone else and [to think] about who it is, so that you’re speaking directly to your audience in the right language.”

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