THE KEENE STATE COLLEGE MAGAZINE WINTER 2010
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Oh, the Places You'll Go
My Travels Thanks to KSC

The chance to take part in geography field courses has taught Katie Bills that she is happiest when she is out of her element and in the swirl of new experiences, new places, and new people.

Photo: At Bryce Canyon courtesy Katie Bills
Katie at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, May 2008.

I had no intention, upon entering Keene State, of enrolling in a single geography course. In fact, I was disgruntled when I was placed in an introductory geography class my first year merely to fulfill a general education requirement. Little did I know that this one course would drastically alter my future.

After being converted to geography by inspiring faculty and intriguing course content, I began to comprehend the breadth of the discipline and the opportunities associated with KSC geography. In the years since, I have completed two KSC geography field courses and one semester abroad.

Photo: At Delicate Arch in Arches National Park courtesy Katie Bills

Katie under Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. The world-famous natural arch of Navajo sandstone is the symbol of the state of Utah.

The first course was to the Southwest to explore Grand Canyon National Park, Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and others. Our itinerary was dense with outdoor activities and academic requirements. On the agenda was a 12-mile hike down into and then out of the Grand Canyon on the Bright Angel Trail.

My original goal was simply not to perish while hiking the 12 miles or fall to my doom and never be found. (I figured my parents would not be thrilled after paying all that money.) So, along with students from Plymouth State University and the University of Wolverhampton in England, we embarked on our trek.

Luckily, only two months after returning from the Four Corners, I hopped on a plane bound for Sydney, Australia, to study at the University of Wollongong.

After several hours of hiking deep into the canyon in the early morning to avoid the heat, we reached Plateau Point. The views were incredible and allowed us to admire the meandering Colorado River as well as Vishnu schist, rock dating back 1.6 billion years! The breathtaking scenic landscape provided us all with the motivation to complete the hike. Only a few days of soreness followed.

This field studies course prepared me for my future travel and fostered personal growth. It was my first experience of this kind, encompassing hands-on, dynamic learning to supplement what I had been taught in the classroom. Through this course I began gaining the necessary experience in field-based research, which is crucial in the discipline of geography. Ultimately, the travel bug officially bit me on this trip, and there was no going back.

Photo: At Symbio Wildlife Park courtesy Katie Bills

At Symbio Wildlife Park near Helensburgh, New South Wales, Australia.

Luckily, only two months after returning from the Four Corners (and yes, I was able to stand in all four states at once, a feat any geographer would be stoked about), I hopped on a plane bound for Sydney, Australia, to study at the University of Wollongong. A small coastal city, Wollongong was exactly the change I needed. I made great friends with many Australian students and traveled around the country. First I journeyed to Cairns, a coastal city in northern Australia that is known as home port for excursions to the Great Barrier Reef. Naturally, I was determined to see this wonder of the world up close, so I signed up for a boat tour of the reef that included snorkeling and an introductory scuba dive.

Now, I do not want to scare anyone who has his or her heart set on scuba diving, but I will say it is not for everyone. I decided that snorkeling is more my cup of tea. Despite my scuba struggles, however, the reef was absolutely spectacular. It looked as if it were animated, the colors so vibrant and the coral so plentiful. I could have snorkeled there forever, but my schoolwork beckoned.

After returning to school and completing the last weeks of classes and final exams, we celebrated with a road trip. Four of us rented a van for nine days and headed south into the Australian state of Victoria. After stopping in Melbourne for a quick stay (and a hearty dinner of kangaroo steak), we continued down the coast to drive the famed Great Ocean Road, a winding road on coastal cliffs boasting the best ocean views around. The clear blue water and geologic formations any physical geographer or geologist would give anything to see felt like heaven to me. As I stared at the 12 Apostles, a surreal feeling of tranquility swept over me. It was the perfect end to my stay in Australia.

My semester in Australia was such an enriching experience. Not only was I engulfed in the Australian culture, but I also was out of my element, exactly where I wanted to be. I found myself on this trip, and I thank my older sister, Sarah, for convincing me to apply and the KSC Global Education Office for their welcoming nature and willingness to help.

Photo: Otavalo, Ecuador courtesy Katie Bills

In the market at Otavalo, Ecuador, March 2009.

While in Australia, I received an e-mail from geography professor Dr. Al Rydant. He told me about an upcoming field course and service-learning opportunity in Ecuador, informed me about the finances, and ended, "Start telling your parents you love them now. You need to go on this trip." I dialed my parents via Skype and planted the seed. The next thing I knew, it was spring break and I was on a plane to Ecuador's capital, Quito, with 15 other Keene State students.

First on the agenda was a bus trip to Otavalo, a town a few hours outside of Quito especially known for its extensive indigenous market. Through the narrow, winding walkways of the outdoor market, smells of fresh-cooked meat and vegetables were pleasantly inescapable. Ecuadorians dressed in their distinctive garb tended booths selling alpaca rugs and scarves, small trinkets, jewelry, artwork, and so much more. The language barrier was difficult, but fortunately I was accompanied by a friend and fellow student who was fluent in the language. He assisted me in my many (possibly too many) business transactions, and we left with our packs full of Ecuadorian goods and gifts for family and friends back home.

The next days were packed with trips to various ethnographic and historical museums, landmarks, and volcanic sites. The highlight was our trip to the Equator. Upon reaching the Equator, I could not contain my excitement. I never thought I would be able to stand in both hemispheres at once! I ran toward the distinct neon orange line painted on the ground to signify the Equator. Quickly jumping back and forth from one side to the other and standing with feet on either side, I was ecstatic.

Though much of the trip was focused on studying the Ecuadorian culture and landscape, a service-learning component was integrated into the trip as well. My group went to an after-school center for children in the heart of Quito to help work on the facility. We swept and cleaned a basketball court and then repainted the boundary lines. When the children came outside, we were able to sit and eat lunch with them and give them some small gifts. I handed out hundreds of stickers, and soon we were all decorated from head to toe.

After lunch, we all decided to play a friendly game of soccer, or futbol. We were all wondering why we were having trouble breathing after only a few minutes. And then it hit us. The reason we could not keep up with these kids was the thin air in Quito! (Honestly, I think they would have beat us no matter where we played.) Visiting with the children and sprucing up their school was one of the most rewarding aspects of this trip.

Each of these unique experiences has shaped my personal and professional outlook. By traveling and exploring places in the world, I have learned a great deal about myself and my ambitions. My love of geography has literally taken me places, and I can't wait to find out where it may take me in the future.

Editor's Note: Katie Bills '10, who has worked in the College and Media Relations Office for four years (when she isn't traveling), is a recipient of a Keene State Enrichment Scholarship and a Travis-Grace Scholarship.