Lee and Sunny Allen International Student Travel Awards – Elise Goplerud

Elise Goplerud reports on taking her UMaine parks, recreation, and tourism education abroad. Goplerud is one of six students from the School of Forest Resources whose experience abroad was made possible, in part, thanks to support from the Lee and Sunny Allen International Student Travel Awards.

Parks, Recreation and Tourism, Class of 2017

Lowell, MA

Favorite tree and why
Yellow Birch because they are the most beautiful tree in the forest, especially during the golden hour when they seem to glow.

Is there anything you would like other students to know?
I would let students that are thinking of applying that you have nothing to lose and so much to gain. These opportunities will never present themselves to you again so it is important to at least try for the scholarship now. Let your imagination run wild and chase your passion.

Is there anything you would like the donors that created the Lee and Sunny Allen International Travel Awards, or other prospective donors to know?
To the donors of the Lee and Sunny Allen scholarship, experiences like these help to shape students’ lives as they evolve into adults and members of our society.  Traveling helps us develop deeper understandings of how different facets of the world works, making us more creative, empathetic and productive.  Without this scholarship several students wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn outside of our immediate environment.  For me, this scholarship made it possible to pursue and grow my passion for medicinal plants, different cultures and the overall health of our environment.

Tell me about your experience in the Amazon Forest:

elise Goplerud travel scholarship sfr plant trees
Goplerud planting trees in the medicinal plant garden.

The Lee and Sunny Allen International Travel Award allowed me to spend approximately two weeks in the Peruvian Amazon. As someone that has always been interested in medicinal plants and shamanism I was drawn to the Amazon. I found the non-profit organization, Fauna Forever, when I was researching opportunities in the jungle. Fauna Forever works with communities in the Amazon for a few months at a time. In each community, they have a team of Peruvian researchers with specialties such as herpetology, mammalogy, or medicinal plants. In addition to doing research in these disciplines their goal is to make a connection with the indigenous people on the importance of their natural resources. They do this by promoting ecotourism and helping them to establish ecotourism ventures.

I signed up as a research assistant on the medicinal plant team. After several days taking Spanish lessons in Puerto Maldonado my new companions and I took a boat two hours up river to the small indigenous community, Boca Pariamanu. We met Alejandro, the town’s Shaman. He expressed concern that the youth in his community were not interested in learning about medicinal plants and was nervous that they might someday lose this knowledge. To prevent this the Fauna Forever team and Alejandro decided to build a jungle garden to attract ecotourists, interested in medicinal plants. We helped Alejandro by finding saplings of the species he was missing and planting them closer to the village center. Additionally, we recorded what Alejandro taught us about each plant with the hopes that we could turn these notes into a guidebook for tourists. On a couple occasions Alejandro demonstrated what the plants could do on us! On other days we did inventory plots along the walking trails. The goal of these plots was to get an idea of what percentage of trees in this jungle have medicinal purposes. By the end of my trip I could easily identify over 20 trees and explain their medicinal uses.

elise Goplerud travel scholarship sfr catching frogs
Goplerud catching frogs.

For a few days during my trip Alejandro needed to tend to the community and so I was given the opportunity to try working for the mammal and herpetology team. It was a very
hands on and worthwhile experience although I did not try holding every snake offered to me. Walking through the jungle during the night in search of reptiles was magical. I appreciated getting to witness wildlife field research in action. Our free time involved eating great Peruvian food, playing volleyball, and playing with the children. During the trip I consumed something that made me get violently sick. When the Shaman and the medicinal plant researcher found out they went to the Shaman’s garden and gathered some plants. They made me a tea and a rub for my stomach and forehead. Soon after I started their treatment my ailments were gone! I could not believe how quickly my fever and stomach problem subsided.

Before this trip I had no idea to what extent my degree in Parks, Recreation and Tourism would help with this research trip. PRT involves a lot of forestry classes, which, to be  honest, I thought I would never use outside UMaine. However, I was surprised by how much I used the skills I learned in my classes during the trip. Understanding forestry helped me make plots, measure trees and distinguish between different tree species. We used GIS in the jungle to keep track of where rare species were found and plot potential hiking trails. Having a strong background in ecotourism helped me give advice to the researchers and community members on the positives and negatives of ecotourism, what to monitor for, and some of the problems that commonly arise with ecotourism. Before this experience I did not think my degree would help me with a non-profit whose primary purpose is biodiversity research. However, now I realize the diversity of opportunities my degree is offering me. This trip has shown me the ways I am qualified to pursue a career in community development, research, and natural resource measurement and management.

These experiences also greatly affected me personally. At home, it is easy to express concern for other nations and cultures, however, you cannot really show empathy unless you get to know those communities and experience their lives. This trip helped to teach me how other cultures live and it showed me that the way we function in the United States has its flaws. Peru is called a third world country and when someone labels a country as “developing” that term comes with negative connotation. People assume the country will not have the amenities we are used to, it will be dirtier, and people will be poorer. However, by simplifying this country, and other third world countries, to a label excludes the ways these countries are stronger than ours.

The community I spent time with have much more of a bond than anything I ever experienced. They say it takes a village to raise a child and Boca Pariamanu showed me this idea still exists. The people I met understood the importance of balancing work life and family and friend life. Working 50 hours a week so they will have a weekend to spend with their children does not make sense to them. They understand the desire to expand and grow but their family and culture takes precedence. Most importantly, they know how important the jungle is and they do not take it for granted. I am excited to continue to learn Spanish so that when I graduate I will be able to travel throughout South and Central America more. Hopefully, I will be able to share what I have learned on this trip to inspire more people to stop dreaming about traveling and to buy their plane ticket and go.