February 17, 2016: McDaniel College article

Deep in the Peruvian rain forest over Jan Term, 12 McDaniel students made the discovery of a lifetime. Disconnected from their cell phones and internet, not a mirror in sight, they found themselves. It’s as simple and complex as that.

The bonds between them, their comfortable connection, respect and genuine liking of each other, fills the room as surely as a blast of brisk February air from an open window. They have a cacophony of majors and class years and even interests, but these digital natives are united in the totally organic experience they shared.

They seem almost to speak with one voice.

“It was liberating,” says Elizabeth Mann, a senior Sociology major from Finksburg, Md.

“We were much more alive and in the moment without distractions,” says senior English major Dani Fatzinger from North Catasauqua, Pa.

“I got to know myself,” says senior Cinema major Luke Fisher from Westminster, Md., who explained that being in the present meant noticing their surroundings and savoring moments that simply happened — moments it turned out that would be among their most treasured. “One morning when we were about to leave for a hike, a group of tree monkeys, several different species, went traveling by up in the trees right next to us. They had learned that we weren’t there to hunt them. We just sat there, not saying anything, fully immersed in the experience.”

Blake Hodges, an Environmental Studies major from Hollywood, Md., agreed that it becomes natural and authentic to connect with people and nature without barriers such as a cell phone standing in the way. Casey Kelahan, who spent a month last summer in the Peruvian rain forest, was excited to watch her classmates embrace the adventure and go through the same personal reflection and growth she experienced several months earlier.

“Your senses were so stimulated — noises, smells — all connected and wrapped up in something so much bigger than you,” says Christina “Sunshine” DeJoseph, a sophomore from Palmyra, N.J.

LPAC night

“One night we were just sitting silently looking at the stars and I thought, ‘whoa, I am here and this is awesome,’” says sophomore Jason Swartz, an Environmental Studies and French double major from Dillsburg, Pa. “I had only seen the night sky like that in two or three other places — truly wild places — and we were so aware and in awe.”

The trip stayed with Lucy Benson, a junior Spanish and History double major from Wilmington, Del., long after she returned to campus.

“We all slept on bunk beds on one platform – and talked in the dark until we fell asleep,” says Benson, who had to conquer her fears to even step onto the plane to Peru but learned along the way to let go and let things happen. “When I came back and was alone in my dorm room, I was still saying good night to everyone anyway.”

They will, indeed, never be the same.

The dozen students in McDaniel’s “The Forest Online” class — which stretches over fall and spring semesters with a Jan Term trip to the rain forest in between — traveled more than 3,500 miles to the remote Las Piedras watershed of Peru’s Madre de Dios region. Their mission was to gather the notes, photos, film, recordings and other materials they would use to tell the stories of this richly biodiverse but threatened ecosystem — compelling stories that can, and perhaps will, change the world.


They spent fall semester preparing for both a jungle adventure, studying ways conservationists are trying to protect and preserve endangered environments, and honing their skills in photography and journaling. Recently back from their three weeks in Peru, including 12 days in the rain forest, the students are now in the third part of the class, processing all they learned, charted, noted, filmed and photographed and, soon, telling the stories.

How they tell these stories is up to them. Their professors, Jason Scullion from Environmental Studies and Josh Ambrose from the Writing Center, are encouraging their students to be innovative and to look for new and different solutions or ways to move people to conserve the planet. Scullion is president of Wild Forests and Fauna (WFF), a U.S.-based non-profit supporting the grassroots Peruvian organization, ARCAmazon, the Alliance for Research and Conservation in the Amazon. With WFF’s support, ARCAmazon obtained the 11,000-acre ecotourism concession of old-growth rainforest along the lower Las Piedras River. There, at the rustic Las Piedras Amazon Center (LPAC), McDaniel students found a basecamp for their research and began to create compelling narratives to help WFF and ARCAmazon.

They have much to work with — there was even more to the experience than the bonds they made with each other and the discoveries they made about themselves. They found connections everywhere — with starry night skies and silt-bottomed steams, with monkeys, frogs and jaguars, with the people of Peru and the world, people for whom a livelihood and rain-forest preservation must co-exist.

“More so than learning how to solve environmental problems, I got inspired to help solve them,” says Hodges. “It drove home to me that storytelling is powerful.”

Hodges’ classmates mirror his enthusiasm for making a difference through storytelling.

“We need to show people,” says Swartz.

Kelahan, a senior Environmental Studies and Spanish double major from Ashburn, Va., says that all environmental issues are social.

“It is all well and good that we want to save the planet but it is also complex,” says Kelahan. “People have to support themselves – they need to have livelihoods.”

Ecotourism through ARCAmazon is one of the ways local people in this spectacularly beautiful but threatened ecosystem can support themselves.

“Our group researched ecotourism and as we got into it, we changed our focus to more about who is ARCAmazon instead of what is ARCAmazon,” says Benson. “Ultimately it is the people who will make the difference to save the rain forest.”

“I’m not a scientist but I care,” says cinematographer Fisher. “What was really interesting to me is that in order to save this place, the scientists need writers, documentation, artists. It reaffirmed for me that maybe I don’t know how the plants got there but I can film and show them and inspire people.”

Fatzinger knows every little bit helps. “I know now that I can do something small and still have an impact.”

“It’s not just about saving the rain forest. It’s more than that,” says DeJoseph. “It’s about asking how can we take our experiences and re-invigorate the passions of others to see that everyone plays a unique role in preserving and protecting the rainforest?”