Journey to the End of the World

For my STEP Signature Project, I studied abroad in Argentina and Antarctica in the program Antarctica: Human Impact on a Fragile Environment through the Office of International Affairs. Over the course of two weeks, student from universities around the country went to Ushuaia, Argentina and various locations around the Antarctic Peninsula, conducting research and appreciating the unadulterated nature.

I initially sought a journey to Antarctica to acquire a perspective of the world that not many people get to see; now, after my trip, there’s a conflict inside me whether people should visit the continent. The magnitude and majesty of Antarctica is incomprehensible, with towering glaciers and exotic wildlife unaccustomed to humans everywhere. But the cruel irony of ecotourism creeped into my mind throughout the trip, wondering how sustainable my actions really were. I wanted to share this amazing place with the whole world, but simultaneously, I knew increased human traffic would irreversibly mar the Antarctic ecosystem. This is not to mention the impact humans have had on Antarctica from thousands of miles away. From these revelations, I’ve become more aware of my global impact, through local and legislative actions.

Also, through my trip, I had a smaller change in my mindset that will still affect me greatly in my college career. Like many undergraduates, I always just assumed faculty were people absorbed in their work without much else to their personalities, but through some interactions on my trip, I was able to overcome this undergraduate hurdle and view faculty with more depth.

It was our second day of making excursions, and we had just landed at Petermann Island. We were given a mandatory briefing in English and Mandarin before the landing about the importance of not getting within five meters of penguins and to not step on their frequented paths, also known as penguin highways. After taking in the scenery for fifteen minutes, I approached one of my friends that appeared disgruntled and asked how he was doing. He grumbled to me about witnessing tourists walk across penguin highways with complete disregard, as well as seeing some people actually chasing down penguins to get the perfect picture instead of respecting international law and preserving the environment. I glanced around in disbelief, and then in horror. He was right. I spent the rest of the excursion on an isolated rock, watching the penguin colony struggle in the presence of dozens of humans and reflecting on the irony of my journey down to Antarctica. Even now I still wrestle with the ethics of my visit and if ecotourism should still continue.

We were at Brown Station, and had just finished climbing a steep mountain that gave us a breathtaking view of the bay on a backdrop of an icy mountain range. Before heading back to the vessel, the expedition leader took us on a Zodiac cruise of the surrounding area to check out some local cormorant colonies and some napping seals. We cruised by a cliff face with a small streak of green peeking through, and he explained that was a copper deposit, and how Antarctica is full of resources that many nations would love to exploit if they could. He ended with the importance of the Antarctic Treaty and how it’s the only thing standing between Antarctica and heavy resource extraction. This gave me a sense of urgency that I need to be aware of how my country and other countries handle policy concerning Antarctica and other natural havens.

Much of the time in Antarctica was not spent on land, but instead on the ship, especially the lounge. Trapped for ten days on this vessel with a limited amount of people to talk to, I made an unlikely connection and overcame one of the biggest fears of undergraduate life. Sitting around in the lounge, I started a conversation with one of the advising professors, and night after night, day after day, through small exchanges, we got to know each other and had intriguing conversations about his studies and our thoughts of various subjects. After the trip finished, it dawned on me that he was actually a professor: someone that stands in front of a class and leads discussions! It was bizarre to think that my professors were all normal people with opinions on things other than calculus.

Increased global awareness will continue to benefit me throughout my life, and hopefully beyond it too. Caring for our planet is extremely important, as climate change is one of today’s most pressing concerns. I hope this change of mindset can manifest itself into tangible progress in minimizing my impact on the planet, and also all of humanity’s impact as well.

With a newfound understanding and appreciation of professors, I hope that I can more readily approach professors and make stronger connections. These connections can enhance my education, as well as lend me future opportunities through recommendations and guidance.

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