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Students get first-hand sustainable tourism experience during Kenya trip

Study abroad experience enables personal contact with wildlife, open spaces, local residents

ASU students gather for a photo in an outdoor setting in front of a sign reading "Nanyuki" and "equator" in Kenya.

Students in sustainability, parks management, tourism development and conservation visiting Africa on a 12-day tour in June 2023 gather at the equator, which passes through the town of Nanyuki, Kenya, with instructors Megha Budruk and Marena Sampson. Courtesy photo

November 08, 2023

A group of Arizona State University students studying sustainability, parks management, tourism development and conservation spent 12 days this past summer in a lab whose ceiling is the sky and whose floor is the earth beneath their feet.

They heard hyenas laugh, had their photo taken at the equator, and witnessed the core message of "the circle of life" animate right before their eyes.

Six parks management and tourism development students from the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, six others studying biological sciences in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and one from the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts spent 12 days in June visiting parks and reserves in the east African nation of Kenya.

The trip, a study abroad program through ASU’s Global Education Office, will be offered again in June 2024. Students completing the annual summer trip earn three undergraduate or graduate credits.

Eleanor Brillo, who expects to earn her master’s degree in sustainable tourism in December 2023, said she began the trip expecting to learn about tourism and wildlife conservation, but also came away understanding how they connect with the concepts of developing healthy communities and preservation.

“I learned that both of these disciplines are critical parts of thriving communities,” said Brillo, who is from Iowa. “It is important that individuals are knowledgeable of and feel that they play an active role in the conscious development of each area.”  

Mason Mrgan, a biosciences sophomore majoring in conservation of biology and ecology with a business minor, said she was able to experience African wildlife up close and personally engage with local residents and their culture.

“Ultimately I learned that you can't really have conservation in Kenya without sustainable tourism,” said Mrgan, who is from Hawaii. “Most tourists come for the wildlife, and you can't have people engaging with delicate ecosystems and conservation reserves without utilizing sustainable tourism (principles) and understanding how to sustainably engage with the culture and wildlife simultaneously.”

'Conservation is really about people'

Associate Professor Megha Budruk and doctoral student Marena Sampson, both of the School of Community Resources and Development, explained that the trip's goal was to bring students in these separate but related programs together to learn from each other. Students also learned to understand the linkages between managing parks for sustainable tourism and conserving ecosystems.

“(The School of Community Resources and Development) and the School of Life Sciences are two completely different schools,” said Budruk, who is also the Watts College’s associate dean for faculty affairs. “When these students interact with each other, they learn so much more about how interconnected sustainable tourism is with both conservation and community development.”

Budruk said Kenya is home to an incredible diversity of both animals and cultures, making it the perfect place for students from different backgrounds to meet, grow, and learn from each other and their study abroad experiences. Exploring an entirely new country together also helped the group consider new ideas and viewpoints, she said.

Ultimately, this created the perfect setting to break down intellectual and cultural silos.

“The students were able to find strong commonalities between their majors and recognize the importance of collaboration in the work they hope to do,” Budruk said. 

Tourism students were also able to witness firsthand the scope of their studies and the impact that global tourism can have on local community livelihoods.

The conservation biology students found that the experience provided an insight into the role of people, including local communities, in conservation.

“Conservation is really about people and how we interact with nature. The experience in Kenya allows them to see conservation from a human standpoint,” Budruk said. “You can’t understand sustainable tourism in silos.”

Experiencing wildlife up close

The 2023 cohort met and fostered orphaned baby elephants that will ultimately be reintegrated back into the wild by a global nonprofit. They also saw the two remaining Northern white rhinos, a subspecies likely destined for extinction, as both are female. All the while they were meeting with and learning from local biologists, wildlife experts, community leaders and tourism operators about the triumphs and hardships that accompany on-the-ground work.

Brillo said she will never forget the focus it took to watch wildlife through binoculars.

“I felt like I learned critical life lessons from seemingly simple moments,” she said.

For Mrgan, it was watching hyenas steal parts of a water buffalo’s carcass from a territorial lioness.

“The lioness chased after the hyenas, and they ran in circles around our vans, laughing mischievously while seeming pretty pleased with their scavenging selves,” Mrgan said. “It was amazing to hear hyenas laugh, and see so much action up close and personal.”

Mrgan said she and the other students also watched a cheetah chase a baby gazelle and catch it as the group followed the action throughout the reserve.

“It was amazing, and it felt like being a part of National Geographic,” Mrgan said.

“It was such an incredible experience that I would encourage anyone to be a part (of the trip) if they love wildlife and being a part of exhilarating adventures.”

Both had advice for students thinking about participating in the next trip, planned for June 19–30, 2024.

Brillo said she would recommend that students allow curiosity to lead their way.

“No matter how much research is done beforehand, a new environment and way of life will surpass your assumptions and expectations,” she said.

Mrgan advised students to look for opportunities and embrace everyone they meet.

“For instance, on the last day of our trip, in Diani Beach, we had a lot of free time to explore the hotel and just relax before departing,” Mrgan said. “I couldn't help but notice camels on the beach. Long story short, I got to ride a camel. It was absolutely amazing and the best way to end the trip.”

Students interested in applying for “Kenya: The Role of Tourism and Park Management in Sustainable Community Development” should visit this webpage. Information about funding resources is available here.

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