“When people ask how my summer was, I stammer and inevitably turn my eyes skyward as I search for words to describe an experience that has enriched my life in more ways than I can count, let alone express in a single word.”
Working as an Assistant Instructor for an Ecological Leadership Program, junior Sonya had a remarkable academic and cultural experience as she traveled to Kyrgyzstan this past summer: the true magnitude of this experience expressed in her direct quote above. The focus of the program is ecological knowledge, outdoor skills, responsible environmental behavior, and leadership. While supplementing the ecology program with her own leadership and skill-set, Sonya also engaged in individual research on the gender dynamics she observed within the group.
Sonya maintained a vast array of responsibilities as the assistant instructor. Whether she was fundraising for the program, coordinating lesson plans and curriculum, or managing food plans and gear for the students, Sonya was constantly expanding her administrative skills. She also was able to utilize her creative abilities when she designed t-shirts for the program. While Sonya initially thought she wasn’t qualified for the position, she soon realized that she was extremely well-fitted for the position, and her supervisor valued her organizational skills and ability to fundraise and get grants. As the assistant instructor to the program, Sonya played an important role in managing the program. However, she noted that a large part of her learning happened beyond this logistical aspect of her job.
As she became immersed within a new culture, Sonya quickly realized the opportunity she had to expand her situational and self awareness, as well as her cultural competency. Sonya conducted research on gender dynamics within the program. Throughout her time working with the program, she was consistently interviewing students and discussing gender within the context of Kyrgyzstan culture, pushing her to reevaluate her preexisting worldview and perceptions of gender and culture. These conversations included one that particularly stood out to Sonya. She spoke with girls in the group for over an hour about what it means to be a female in Kyrgyzstan as well as a female pursuing outdoor actives such as the eco-leadership program they were currently attending. Sonya appreciated this eye-opening experience and its ability to challenge her understandings of social justice beyond the classroom setting.
Now back at UVM and continuing her junior year as a resource ecology major, Sonya is already looking to the future. Following graduation, she plans to spend at least a year doing unpaid work anywhere that is needed. Specifically noting her hopes to work with the Black Lives Matter movement or Standing Rock, Sonya cites her research in Kyrgyzstan as her inspiration for continuing her activism in social justice.