ES Senior Recaps “Semester at Sea” Experience

Environmental Studies Senior Alex Gilbert ‘12 spent the Fall (2011) Semester on a “Semester at Sea” Program. Here are some of Alex’s many tales from his whirlwind trip to twelve countries in four months.

The last four months have been incredible. I have had the opportunity to participate in a multi-country study abroad program called Semester at Sea. During my studies, I traveled to twelve different countries across three continents. We would be at sea for several days before stopping in various ports. In each country we had several options for what we could do, from independent travels to structured trips into places such as Marrakesh or Tibet. This intensive immersion program taught me so much about the many different varieties of people and cultures around the world. Among the most memorable experiences: meditating with a Sufi monk while gazing over the Atlantic Ocean at sunset from a mountain in Cape Town, and sleeping under the stars on rooftops in the Mountains of Morocco.

While visiting different countries on Semester at Sea, I conducted research funded by the Lake Forest College Environmental Studies Department for my senior thesis, which is titled “The Varieties of Environmental Management.” I have traveled from Berber villages to Chinese cities, meeting with a variety of individuals and organizations involved in different aspects of environmental management. I met current and former members of the Ghanaian Parliament and discussed their regulatory preparation for extraction of Ghana’s recent discovered oil as well as the deforestation challenges the country faces. Additionally, I visited organizations ranging from wildlife conservation groups to palm oil processing facilities to regional development think-tanks to learn about their operations. I even had a chance to visit a carbon neutral winery and was treated to a private wine tasting after my research interview. After all of this, I am now in the process of turning my experiences into a thesis focused on how different sectors of society (business, government, nonprofit, academia, and civil society) have different roles to play and methods to use in environmental management initiatives.

My travels and research were the academic culmination of my college experience. Lake Forest College’s education, combined with environmental studies interdisciplinary courses and field experiences, allowed me to understand and see so much more of what was going on in developed and developing countries across the world. I was able to identify farming practices and development levels across eight countries. While interviewing different organizations, I was able to rely upon analytical tools I learned from writing intensive classes at the college to determine what questions to ask. Even classes I did not expect to impact my research or travels, such as Islam, had their role in making my experience that much more valuable. My classwork from Islam prepared me for my observations. In both Africa and Asia, I saw how Islam is a major global religion with many different interpretations. Perhaps the biggest interdisciplinary lesson I learned was one that many youth struggle with when looking at our environmental future: hope. The skills I learned at Lake Forest allowed me to understand the many ways in which people around the world are working towards a more sustainable future. From the Indian teacher who plants five thousand saplings a year to the student founded organization fighting the iPhone maker’s treatment of workers. People around the world are working for a brighter future, and I know that now. Because of Lake Forest College and Semester at Sea, I was able to better understand the concepts I learned in the classroom by seeing them in action. I also learned about the still emerging impacts of globalization and development on the environment.

I graduate in May, and there is one thing I am sure of: I’m ready for what’s next.