This post was written by S’18 alumna Audra DeLaney. She is studying public relations and political science at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. Audra enjoys visiting the ocean, going on adventures, and telling the unique stories of the people and places around her. If you have any questions about our program, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Key parts of the Williams-Mystic Maritime Studies Program are the three field seminars that occur during the first half of each semester. In the fall, a class might sail off the coast of Maine, then travel to Northern California. In the spring, they might circumnavigate Puerto Rico before exploring the Pacific Northwest.
Though our West Coast and Offshore Field Seminars vary by semester, Williams-Mystic classes have had one field seminar in common for the past 14 years: Louisiana. Semester after semester, students meet people that the Williams-Mystic faculty and staff have developed close relationships with. Each class experiences firsthand what climate change is doing to our nation’s coasts and the people who live on them.
A few weeks ago, S’18 traveled to Louisiana. A number of students were deeply affected by the people we meet and the places we saw.
For University of Connecticut senior Meghan Patulak, traveling to Louisiana gave her the opportunity to see with her own eyes how climate change is affecting coastal communities.
Going into the field seminar, Meghan expected to be very emotional, moved by the stories of the local coastal community members. She felt like being able to see what the communities were dealing with, including sea level rise and environmental injustice, would impact her greatly.
“It’s one thing to study and imagine what climate change is like, but to actually see with my own two eyes how it’s affecting our people and the natural land… it was truly heartbreaking,” Meghan said. “However, while sorting through these emotions and imagining what I could do to help mitigate the horror of what is occurring, I felt an even stronger passion began to flare in my soul. I knew after hearing these people’s stories that I was going to spend the rest of my life fighting for them and fighting to preserve and cultivate the beauty of this earth.”
College of New Rochelle junior Wenting Shu expected to encounter vibrant Creole and Cajun cultures.
“I also expected to learn about the rich history of architecture and food of the area,” Wenting said. “I didn’t expect to interact with the Mayor of Grand Isle nor see the amount of devastation left behind in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I also did not expect to see the daughter of the deceased owner of the Jolly Inn Houma, La., which was more emotional than anything I expected.”
Each time a Williams-Mystic class is in Louisiana, they head to The Jolly Inn to experience Cajun dancing. Meghan said the night of Cajun dancing sticks out vividly in her memory because of how much fun it was, but also because of what happened afterwards.
“We had just departed the dance hall and my van decided to turn up the radio and belt out a few songs. At some point along the way home the professors pulled all the vans into a local Sonic to treat us to some ice cream. As this was happening, Whitney Houston’s “I Just Want To Dance With Somebody” came blaring out of the aux and my entire van began to sing along with the lyrics at the top of our lungs,” Meghan said. “The entire block probably heard us singing. The reason this sticks out so much to me is how happy, free and full of bliss I felt. It was one of those moments where the negativity of the world went away for a bit and everyone was living in the present moment with one another.”
Meghan said it felt like the past and future dissipated and the only thing that mattered was soaking up every last moment of that memory.
For Wenting, the memory of Louisiana that sticks out was arriving at the Mississippi River levee on the first day.
“I was also deeply affected by hearing the local residents talk about the loss of their homes and their jobs due to hurricanes and sea level rise,” Wenting said. “The more the residents talked and described their losses, the more overwhelming the feelings became. To see so much resilience and strength in these people was heartbreaking but also made me more driven to help rebuild their community.”
As she approaches graduation, Meghan believes this trip to Louisiana could not have come at a better time.
“I have always had an intense passion for saving the environment and protecting all those that live within it,” Meghan said. “I was able to understand that I’m on the right track in life as I transition into my next life chapter post-graduation. It’s exciting to find what sets your soul on fire. I felt that I had purpose for once and know the work I have put in over the years isn’t going to waste.”
Wenting was left in awe by how history, ecology, and policy all intertwined in Louisiana.
“It made me think critically and it motivated me to want to work with residents and scientists to help lessen the damage of future natural disasters on the communities in southern Louisiana.”
Meghan gave some advice to future Williams-Mystic students about how to approach this field seminar.
“Talk to everyone you are able to meet, hang with your professors, go night fishing even if you’re tired, swim in the Gulf Coast, eat that weird gator sausage, dance your heart out at the Cajun dance hall, lend a helping hand… just experience everything you possibly can,” Meghan said. “You may never get to go back to this area and have the same opportunities that are provided to you on this trip.”
If a future Williams-Mystic student is reading this, Wenting also has this to say to you:
“Every student takes away something from this interactive learning experience, and it is going to impact you for the rest of your life.”