Tilden Remerleitch, a recent geography graduate at UVM, spent two years of her childhood living in Ecuador—her family moved there to pursue the dream of living and working abroad while exposing their daughter to a second language. Since that experience, she’s travelled to many places and relishes communicating with the people she meets in their native language—she’s already fluent in Spanish and Mandarin.
There will be many more destinations in store for Remerleitch, but her life has already come full circle. This month she heads back to Ecuador, this time as a recipient of the National Geographic Society’s Early Career Grant.
The grant funds her community-based research on how natural disasters, climate change and resource extraction in Ecuador alter the complex relationships between people and place. At the same time she will be contributing her GIS mapping skills for Ecuadorian NGOs working with internally displaced populations in three eco-zones: the highlands, the Pacific coast and the Amazon River basin.
A 2016 earthquake of 7.8 magnitude on Ecuador's coast affected 240,000 people, many of whom still do not have permanent housing, according to Remerleitch. Climate change is speeding glacial melt in the highlands and threatening water shortages in major cities including Quito. Extractive industries in the Amazon region are displacing indigenous populations from their ancestral lands.
“In this era of forced migration and displacement globally, Ecuador is a really compelling microcosm of these global trends,” Remerleitch said.
Her research uses the cultural geography lens to examine two primary research questions: how is home and livelihood imagined and re-imagined? And, what is displacement’s effect on people’s emotional, economic and spiritual relationship to the environment?
Given climate irregularity, fresh water shortages and the predicted rise in forced migration, she hopes this research can help inform a plan to lessen the conflicts, contribute to prevention efforts and document solutions.
Meeting the People Behind the Maps
As a high school student in southern Vermont, Remerleitch knew she wanted to learn more about the world. She beat a path to the door of Pablo Bose, professor of geography and director of the Global Studies Program at UVM.
“I reached out to Pablo the summer before my freshman year, on the heels of a gap year learning Chinese in Shanghai on the National Security Language Initiative-Youth program,” she said. “I was looking for a mentor for a small research grant opportunity from the State Department using my Chinese, so I sent him an email. Incredibly, he wrote me back and invited me for a visit to campus. With his help and expertise on global megacities, I landed the grant and set about researching the impact of Mega-cities in China by interviewing UVM students from China my freshman year.”
That began a four-year collaboration during which Remerleitch worked as Bose’s research assistant studying refugee resettlement in small and mid-sized cities including Burlington.
Remerleitch created GIS maps and compiled statistics about Vermont refugees—she was gratified to apply skills she was learning in the classroom to real-world research. But by her senior year, she had developed a deep curiosity about the untold personal stories of displaced people who lived in her backyard. “I wanted to meet the people behind the maps,” she said.
Although she had little experience as a journalist, she produced a six-episode podcast called “Grounded” for her senior honors thesis project. The program features stories of resettlement in the state, with interviews of local refugees, people who serve the needs of refugees through agencies like the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, and fellow UVM students interested in making a difference in the lives of newcomers who often live “hidden in plain sight.”
“Immigrants are people who choose to come here. Refugees come here because they have nowhere else to go,” Remerleitch explains. “Only 1% of displaced people are actually considered for refugee status in US. It’s a very lengthy process and it’s not easy. Applicants have to prove that returning to their home country will be dangerous for them.”
Back to Ecuador
After graduation, Remerleitch was determined to get back to Ecuador, and she began writing to NGOs and applying for grants. The National Geographic Society Early Career Grant funds her activities for the next academic year, and utilizes all the skills she sharpened at UVM. She’ll be using innovative Participatory Action Research (PAR) methods including diagramming, mapping, and Photo-voice to produce a new podcast that she plans to make available next year in English and Spanish.
While Remerleitch’s own travels have stemmed from her natural curiosity and sense of adventure, she understands refugees are on the move because they are fleeing political or natural catastrophe. Her work is driven by gaining a deeper understanding of the refugee crisis around the globe (she says that 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home in 2016, according to UNHCR statistics) while faithfully recording the testimony of people affected by catastrophe.
“My plan in Ecuador is to host workshops for participants to develop their own stories and help them share their experiences with a wider audience,” Remerleitch explained. “I don’t want to lose sight of individual lives that are impacted.”
Finding Mentors, Finding Funding
Remerleitch found a faculty member, Dr. Pablo Bose, as a mentor and research supervisor early in her academic career. Bose and UVM professors in the geography, anthropology and Chinese departments wrote recommendation letters for her grant applications under tight deadlines. She also found her way to the UVM Office of Fellowships, Opportunities, and Undergraduate Research (FOUR).
“I really became best friends with them,” said Tilden. “I would advise any student to connect with FOUR because they have so many resources, information sessions, and talks with past students who come back to campus to talk about their experiences.”
Staff at FOUR are dedicated to helping students develop a background in research at UVM, a key credential for success in graduate school and the working world. They also help students and alumni work through the process of identifying and applying for nationally competitive fellowships from the Carnegie Endowment, the National Science Foundation and the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, among many other options.
These fellowships often provide thousands of dollars in funding along with a priceless educational opportunity that provides stimulating intellectual challenge. Remerleitch used most facets of the FOUR offerings; she received funding for her undergraduate research, presented at the UVM Student Research Conference, and worked with the office to transition her thesis research into fellowships applications.
FOUR also helped Remerleitch secure the National Geographic Grant to help fund her research in Ecuador. Remerleitch was surprised to get a call from Katie Alexander, fellowships advisor at FOUR, offering support on future fellowship applications.
"I had just graduated so I was mentally putting my UVM experience in the rear-view mirror," Remerleitch said. "But FOUR helps you out even after you graduate. I’m applying for a graduate school scholarship they brought to my attention, which would happen after my National Geographic Society Explorer year.”
“We’re available to help students brainstorm new opportunities,” said Alexander. “Very often their interests and aspirations change, even after graduation. We’re there for current students, but also for graduates looking for new challenges.”