Olifants West Balule Nature Reserve, Hoedspruit, South Africa, Summer 2014

If you would have told the 5-year-old, short kindergarten version of myself that she would get to go to Africa and see Lion King in real life, she probably would have squealed with excitement and couldn’t believe her dream was coming true. Or maybe, the 20-year-old version of her did the exact same thing. Conducting research on a nature reserve in South Africa, I experienced more than my 5-year-old self could have ever imagined.

BB1I handled exotic animal species every day in the open on a Big 5 reserve. I witnessed an emergency rescue to save an elephant wrapped in telephone wire. I learned how a reserve battles intrusive plant species. I got too close to a poisonous snake and realized I was the real encroacher of space. I saw tactics to prevent rhino poaching and how conservation efforts are a 24/7 undertaking. I chased monkeys out of my kitchen that were eating my fruit. I was taught how to drive a stick shift 70’s macho Land Rover, and gave myself tours of the reserve. I also changed three flat tires. I observed how a game capture specialist taps into the instinctual minds of animals. I discovered that I am capable of more than I thought possible.

Balule 5But it’s not just about the experiences you have; it’s also about the experiences you share with others. Eating fresh oranges under a waterfall with my classmates, chasing down a giraffe with my ropes partner, spotting cheetahs by the watering hole with research assistants, and bargaining for a handmade cloth in town with my professor are only a few of the collective memories. There’s a certain charm that lingers when discovering a new culture with new friends.

As a senior in high school facing the daunting task of where to attend college, on my tour of WKU I learned about the summer study abroad course in South Africa. With my heart set on pre-veterinary studies, I told my parents if I attended WKU I would be one of the participants on this trip. In addition, I was ecstatic to later learn that I could not only go on this study abroad course, but I could also potentially spend an additional two months, or my entire summer, in South Africa on a reserve conducting research for my Honors thesis.

BB2Looking back now, I still can’t believe that I did all of this and more. Holding onto the journal I wrote and flipping through the pictures I took made this summer a tangible memory and one that will not be long forgotten. The biggest regret I hear from college graduates is not studying abroad. But no matter how many stories you hear, you have to create your own. I hope that you find something that inspires you to push your boundaries. If you have the chance, I hope you take it and that you don’t look back.

*Brooke used her LTE grant to conduct research in South Africa.

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