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St. Norbert College students from various disciplines came together to explore Namibian wildlife and culture, creating lasting relationships with the country and each other.

Africa Seminar’s Focus on Biology Evolves Into Something Bigger

The SNC Global Seminar trip to the African nation of Namibia in May was originally designed to focus on wildlife conservation. But since its inception in 2019, it’s become a course that opens eyes to topics far beyond nature and science, to include poverty, politics, health, communication, relationships and culture.

Adam Brandt (Biology), who specializes in wildlife conservation research, co-leads the trip with Carrie Kissman (Biology). The seminar attracts students from a wide variety of majors and perspectives, united by two things: their own courageous spirits and a commitment to embrace SNC’s guiding principle of communio.

Moments of awe
Eight students made the trek to Namibia after first taking a course that prepared them for immersive wildlife experiences that ranged from animal behavior to ecology and evolution, and from animal welfare to disease and rehabilitation. Nothing, however, could have prepared them for the sense of awe they felt during up-close encounters with African wildlife, says Stephanie Faudoa ’23. “It was indescribable seeing how beautiful and large these animals were, right in front of me. I took that as a privilege. I kept thinking, ‘I cannot believe I am here with these animals looking at me.’ ”

The group spent time at the Naankuse Foundation Wildlife Sanctuary, which uses funding from luxury ecotourism to support wildlife conservation and rehabilitation work, and a large game reserve. The students had experiences no classroom could offer: They tracked elephants and prepared food for African wild dogs, lions, cheetahs and leopards, and watched from a safari vehicle as a mother lion with young cubs fed on a zebra carcass.

Faudoa, a double-major in political science and communication, says an experience she treasured most was an assignment to create challenging games for a group of baboons. “That was amazing,” she says. “Baboons are smart, and they need to be entertained; they get bored if it’s repetitive.” Faudoa and her team designed an activity that encouraged the baboons to figure out how to get nuts and cereal out of plastic bottles with different types of holes. “When they got the food out, they were so excited, jumping up and down,” she says. “We got to see how they react to each other, how they react to the people around them, and how unique and smart they are.”

Giovanni “Gio” Basanese ’23, a double-major in psychology and biology, recalled one of his favorite moments: “The entire herd of elephants was at this waterhole. I had the opportunity to see a range from the baby elephants all the way to the matriarch elephant. I could not believe how big they were, yet the elephants were still graceful as they made their way to and from the waterhole. Watching these elephants is an experience that I will never forget.”

Hano Smit, a wildlife coordinator at the Naankuse Foundation who worked closely with the SNC group, agrees the elephant encounter was rare and memorable, especially because it was followed by another unforgettable wildlife moment: “Shortly after the elephants left, two female lions showed up. It’s not often you have sightings like that back to back.”

But these experiences left the students with much more than vivid memories. Brandt says firsthand experience is the best way to understand the complexities of wildlife conservation, including problems such as poaching, wildlife impact on agriculture, and protecting endangered animals who have habituated to humans. “We can tend to have a very Western viewpoint and think you can throw money at an issue to resolve it,” says Brandt. “To see what the real situation is, you have a better understanding. It benefits the students in terms of critical thinking, understanding the world and how complex it is.”

Smit says while the SNC students were learning, they were also teaching him and his colleagues in Namibia about their unique perspectives and American culture. “Their excitement and curiosity reminded me of the beautiful world we live in,” he says.

Moments of connection and understanding
While studying African wildlife, the students also immersed themselves in Namibian culture. After a history-filled outing to the Independence Museum in the capital city Windhoek, the group stumbled into an unexpected cultural enrichment lesson. As they entered a restaurant for lunch, they noticed an entourage of vehicles outside. Their Namibian driver, Jevin Naruseb, pointed out the country’s president and first lady, who happened to be dining there.

The coincidental opportunity was too rich to pass up. Brandt looked to Faudoa, who serves as president of the SNC Student Government Association. He recalls telling her, “If you go over and ask, you’ll probably have more success – president to president!”

“I was a little nervous,” Faudoa admits. “This is a president, not just any individual.” She relayed her message through a waiter, explaining that they were a group of college students from Wisconsin in the United States who would be honored to meet the president. A security guard checked them over and ultimately agreed to a group photo with President Hage Geingob. “When we saw him, I felt like it was a dream,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been on a trip that had as many surprises.”

Brandt had the chance to speak to Geingob and other government ministers about his wildlife research, an experience he says was surreal. 

Naruseb was happy to play a role in connecting the SNC group with the country’s president. “It was really such a great honor. … I could see the joy in their eyes.”

The connections the students and faculty made with each other were also deep and valuable. “We started as friends, and at the end we became family,” Faudoa says. “The most beautiful part of this is, we are all so different, but our differences made us unite. Whenever I was unsure or scared, they said, ‘You can do it, don’t be afraid, we’ll be right here.’ They were pushing me to become a better person.”

Brandt says the fact that this trip attracted students with such diverse majors made the experience all the richer, with radical hospitality flowing as a steady undercurrent. “The college mission is a big takeaway: communio and stabilitas loci – understanding one’s place in this world,” says Brandt.

Moments of courage
The rich experiences were only realized because of a collective courage to embrace them. “While I was extremely excited to go to Africa, I was also nervous,” says Basanese. “I knew that I would be out of my comfort zone as I was on a completely different continent. I took this as an opportunity to try and do everything that I could. I got to try new food, like a caterpillar, banana on pizza and traditional African food. There were so many new adventures because I was open-minded and wanted to try new things.”

Faudoa hopes her African adventure stories will inspire someone else to take a brave leap of faith. “If you need a sign to travel, this is it,” she says. “I have these memories forever. Travel gives you experiences that help you find yourself. When you go somewhere that puts you out of your comfort zone, you have potential to do anything you set your mind to.”

July 13, 2023