Here’s a short list of what Alex Morrison, SOC/MA ’10, did on his summer vacation.
He snorkeled in a coral reef, explored an underwater kelp forest, kayaked in the Florida Keys and Monterey Bay, and helped 60 high-school students from as far away as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia make their own films about the experience – all while learning about each other’s cultures.
It wasn’t, strictly speaking, a vacation. The graduate student in film and electronic media was one of five School of Communication students who spent a month mentoring international high-school students in the Florida Keys and on the California coast.
They were all participants in Ocean for Life, a pilot project to bring students from Western and Middle Eastern cultures together to build understanding while exploring their shared passion for the environment and creating their own media projects.
The project was a collaboration in part between AU’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking, National Geographic, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
Students as Teachers
AU was in charge of the filmmaking piece of the program, which meant that students like Morrison had the job of steering young eco-enthusiasts with almost no experience on the water through the process of learning to film underwater, film from boats, and otherwise meet the considerable challenges of environmental filmmaking.
One result: a video using the words of Dr. Seuss’s Red Fish, Blue Fish in English and Urdu to show both the diversity of coral reefs and the joys of cultural exchange. It was created by a team of Pakistani, Canadian, and American students, with guidance and editing by Morrison.
Perhaps a more important result for the high-school students: the lasting memories of bridging cultural differences and working on something that mattered to everyone. The project aims to foster understanding and collaboration, using the oceans that connect everyone as a focal point.
“We had so many really good chances to sit down and talk,” Morrison says. “They shared their own cultures, talked about preconceptions. It was probably one of the best student groups I’ve ever worked with.”
“Some know more about ocean issues than I do,” says fellow mentor Danny Ledonne, SOC/MFA ’10, “but none of them have a film background. The project gave students the opportunity to create and tell their own stories. We didn’t want this to be a program on filmmaking, but a way to express what they’re doing. We wanted the emphasis to be on the ocean science.”
Taking the Experience Home
The high schoolers came from countries including the United States, Canada, Morocco, Lebanon, Armenia, Norway, Denmark, France, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt. One group of 30 spent two weeks in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary; another group of 30 went to California’s National Marine Sanctuaries. The SOC mentors went along to each location, along with mentors from National Geographic, to teach photography.
“From the students’ perspective, video is one component of many,” Ledonne says. “Sometimes they’re doing marine science work, sometimes interviewing scientists, sometimes they’re presenting about their cultures. The video portion is a way to take some of that experience home with them.”
Other partners in the pilot program included the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies, the GLOBE (Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment) Program, and Scubanauts International.
The SOC mentors each brought a lot of experience to their summer teaching jobs. Morrison, for instance, taught photography at a canoeing camp, “a watery challenge similar to this one,” so he had the requisite outdoor skills and teaching background as well as technical expertise.
Ledonne has “been on many AU filmmaking adventures,” including classes that took him to the Galapagos, Alaska, and Florida. He is also a video contractor for NOAA. The other mentors were Lauren Demko, Katie Kassof, and Jeremy Polk.
“We Have to Be the Professors”
It’s been a learning experience for those AU students, as well.
“One of the best ways to learn is to teach. Any time you teach, you learn,” says Chris Palmer, director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking. “There they were for a total of four weeks with these two sets of students, from the Middle East and the West, learning to teach in that cultural mix . . . and learning about the marine sanctuaries. It was truly a wonderful opportunity.”
“For the first time, we were going out and have no professors. We have to be the professors,” Ledonne says.
As for the high-school students, “It was the first time a lot of them had ever snorkeled or seen any of these environments,” said Jonathon Shannon, education liaison for the National Marine Sanctuaries. But what they lacked in experience they made up for in commitment.
Mohammed Ali of Pakistan, 15, had paddled a boat in a local lake, but it was the first time in a kayak for the enthusiastic young wildlife photographer.
“I’m part of World Wildlife Fund Pakistan, and I’m really interested in wildlife photography and nature,” said Ali, whose proudest moment with the camera, before this, was capturing a wild mountain goat on film.
The Pakistanis came accompanied by Islamabad school principal Shahina Masood, who made sure they did their homework beforehand with trips to Pakistan’s shoreline.
Learning about the Environment and Other People
It had been a rigorous application process that included five essays and an interview with Pakistan’s education ministry, who selected the participants. Students from all around the world had gone through a highly competitive process to join the program; each had to demonstrate a commitment to the environment, maturity, and strong English skills.
During the day, they filmed and photographed in the novel environment. “I dived in, and it was like two different worlds,” said Shaezal Sohail, 14. Her most nervous moment? Seeing nurse sharks. “I was kind of scared at first, but those sharks are kind of vegetarian,” she said.
The best part of the program, said Ammar Abbasi, 18, who is from Pakistan but about to start college in Florida, was the opportunity to work across cultures. “Meeting new people and knowing everyone has so many similarities is something I’ll always remember. I learned so much about the environment and about other people.”
That, of course, was the whole point. A summer vacation could hardly be put to better use – for the students or their mentors.