Sewanee students experience New Zealand

By Mary Katherine Prehn

Contributing Writer

To 13 Sewanee students, New Zealand is known as a place of sustainability and diverse culture, which they experienced first hand through the leadership of professors Russell Fielding and Scott Torreano. The Sewanee field course is taught through weekly seminars of paper discussions of natural and cultural aspects in the fall semester and continues into the Winter Break trip to New Zealand where the students do their own research regarding topics they pick prior to their arrival.  Ranging anywhere from wine-making in the region to the forests, each student chooses a topic which affects the sustainability of New Zealand.

Torreano, whose relationship with New Zealand began 30 years ago, encourages students to understand the idea of a sustainable place saying that, “it is not one-sided-not only natural, but socio-economic”. This multi-dimensional definition of sustainability taught in the class is demonstrated through not only the geologic and natural ecology of New Zealand, but through the 1000-year old cultural history as well. This idea of “Place-based learning” is not a new concept to Sewanee. Dr. Bran Potter’s Island Ecology program at St. Catherine’s Island and Professor Fielding’s Iceland trip, led after the second part of the sustainability Spring course, are examples of programs determined to expose students to sustainable environments outside the domain. On a much larger scale than Sewanee, students saw the example of a model of sustainability and management of the environment while asking the questions, “will this work here?” or, “Are we losing things in regards to the culture?”.

Maintaining the theme of liberal arts, Torreano expresses the significance of the relation between what students learn at the undergraduate level at Sewanee while engaging in other parts of the world.  “I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a difference there is now than there was before 30 years ago”, Torreano recalls. The ratio between professor and student is connected to the relation between student learning “In and Out of the classroom”, he says. Professor Fielding who will teach the second part of the course in the spring semester before leading his fourth group to Iceland, emphasizes the unique opportunity to observe the environmental changes educated and experienced in the U.S. in a more extreme way. “We hiked to a glacier which you almost can’t see anymore because it has retreated up the mountain”, he recalls, “through that, students were able to see the effects of climate change right in front of their face”. That real life example or experience on location of what they have read about in class has greater impacts on the students, Fielding believes. But while seeing the “new” New Zealand the importance of maintaining or remembering the past is still encouraged for the students to see how it has evolved. Fielding describes the invasive species, Kudzu, for example, seen in the U.S. in comparison to the imported species in New Zealand that are killing the native species that lack the proper defense against those predators.  “We witnessed first-hand an area of biodiversity in Sanctuary Mountain—Mauntgatautari— to show people what New Zealand used to be like”, Fielding reminisces. The pristine temperate rainforest keeps magnificent birds and other exquisitely endangered animals safe inside a closed fence where the tiniest blip on the fence’s radar is recognized and sent by text message to alert the park. Nothing comes in, nothing comes out.

Through each new experience, students remark on how special New Zealand is from other places they’ve traveled. Laura Katherine Crum C’17 is not new to Sewanee led trips, “Traveling to a ‘newer’ country like New Zealand was an eye opening experience”. Laura Katherine did not go abroad for a semester like many choose to do at Sewanee, and has only traveled to Europe in the past. “I must say traveling abroad after having an entire semester’s worth of material is the way to do it”. Others in the class have even experienced both sections of the course and have traveled to both Iceland and New Zealand. Elizabeth Oakes C’19 participated in last year’s field study in Iceland before this year’s New Zealand  program. Using the signature foods of Hákarl, fermented shark, and whale blubber as examples of Icelandic cuisine, Oakes compares to the Hangi style cooking of New Zealand. “Hangi is a style of cooking a combination of meats and vegetables in a  pit under ground”, Oakes enthusiastically divulges. Oakes hopes to complete a major in Environmental Sustainability and encourages others to participate in the two-program course. “Both countries are two of the most beautiful places I have ever seen”, she expresses, “Their people are some of the most genuine I have ever encountered and they both value and are continuing to strive towards the goal of being sustainable, environmentally, economically and socially”. Each student participant of the New Zealand and/or Iceland programs take from their experience a global understanding of what Sewanee teaches to them in and out of the classroom. Each exposure included something special to which the professors themselves were additionally delighted in . Professor Torreano describes a fish and chips picnic they ate in the park one day, “Sure we were having a nice fish meal, but at the same time we learned how New Zealand manages its fisheries”. Haley Tucker (C’19) describes the trek to the volcano atop “Mount Doom” in Lord of the Rings, or Mount Ngauruhoe, to the average Kiwi. “I was borderline dying”, Haley laughs, “I thought, is this real? It was the hardest thing I have ever done”.

Whether they were attempting to reach Mount Doom or savoring the local delicacies, each student came away from New Zealand with a greater perspective of sustainable communities. “A highlight of the trip was listening to students and reading their reflections,” says Torreano, “which invariably focused on how they had been changed by their experience”. Each student was required to post daily blog posts sharing their enthusiastic impressions of the land and places around them. Torreano himself has experienced those changes each time he has returned to New Zealand appreciating each trip as an opportunity to grow further.

Sewanee’s place-based programs emulate the values cherished by the university community offering a balance of cultural and scientific learning. “Having a strong sense of place does not make one insular,” Torreano writes, “Instead, it can serve as a bulwark against insularity”. Those who wish to participate in the program can head to or to learn more and see the blog posts shared by the students.