Ben Szydlowski - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

I've always wanted to go to southern Africa to experience the wildlife and various cultures, and I figured going abroad during college would be the least expensive and most fulfilling opportunity for this.

Why did you choose Round River Conservation Studies?

Round River's emphasis on community based natural resource management as well as living where they work was a perfect fit for me. Camping in the same environment that we learned about was extraordinary and living within the community was more of a learning experience than I've ever had in a classroom setting.

Steenbok in Botswana
A flustered Steenbok in NG 34. My favorite animal to say in Setswana; "Poodoohoodoo"

What was your favorite part about Botswana?

Botswana is an incredible place. The only cities that we were in were Maun (for about 10-12 days) and Kasane (three to four days) while the rest of the time was spent out in the bush in different concessions, which are managed by specific villages. Each village offered a unique perspective, had different wildlife and faced its own challenges. It was interesting to notice how a village and concession in one place had completely different problems to face or had different advantages than another village 40 kilometers down the road. The escort guides that camped with us were incredibly helpful, friendly and easy to talk to as were the people within each concession. From a scientific perspective, the wildlife in the Okavango Delta is unmatched. It is teeming with elephants, hippos, hyenas, buffalo and lions and each night and day leaves you wondering what encounter you may have next.

What made your experience abroad unique?

The fact that we camp in the bush for the semester automatically makes Round River unique. Every night and day is greeted with some sort of wildlife encounter, whether it be hyenas attempting to get into our food tent in the middle of the night, lions roaring close to the makeshift bathroom or vervet monkeys and baboons sneaking into camp to steal a cucumber! These crazy encounters are what makes the learning experience so different from any other study abroad program. While sharing the land with these creatures, we simultaneously learn their social dynamics, behaviors, tendencies and biology.

Leopard in Botswana
Male leopard found during a transect in NG 34

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

Sixteen is our resident Botswana instructor. As an incredibly smart and experienced scientist who grew up in the bush, his experiences and encounters with wildlife make him an invaluable asset to the semester. His experience as a young boy dealing with hungry lions, angry buffalo and venomous snakes make the students feel extremely safe when in close quarters with these potential dangers. Undoubtedly the life of the party, Sixteen never ceases to lighten up a mood and quickly become a loving friend, while simultaneously acting as an inspiring teacher.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

There isn't much I regret from the semester. Maybe the only thing would be to travel in the region after the trip! It goes too quickly!

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

A typical day starts around 5:30 a.m. to conduct our research sampling and count herbivores along a 20 kilometers transect. Any herbivore or carnivore seen during the transect is recorded as part of our data that will eventually be given to the Botswana government. A typical morning can lead to 30-40 different wildlife sightings, depending on the weather and the concession. We usually return to camp around 10 a.m. and do our homework (readings or journal writings) until lunch.

After lunch we usually have lectures around camp until 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. and then proceed to conduct our own research until dinner. Lectures usually continue around the campfire and then we were usually in bed in our tents at around 9 p.m.

Volunteer campsite in Botswana
First camp site in NG 34

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

Most of my free time was spent reading, interacting with the community, practicing Setswana or playing cards and other games with the local escort guides at that time. Because of the heavy research aspect, there wasn't much free time, but that wasn't a bad thing! The research that we conducted was basically exploring, which is what I would have wanted to do regardless!

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

Our "accommodations" were canvas tents, which is exactly what you want if you're camping in the Okavango Delta. It allowed for some incredible moments, like when a leopard sniffed and clawed at my tent because I was snoring so loud!

Lion hiding under Acacia in Botswana
Male lion hiding under an Acacia in NG 34

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

Every participant should understand that this is a research and conservation based program, located in the bush in southern Africa. While that sounds obvious it's important to know that you won't have the same amenities and luxuries that you may have in America. Understanding your privilege when you're in Botswana is extremely important and not understanding and noticing that has the potential to be very disrespectful.

Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?

My time in the Delta with Round River made me realize that conservation work in southern Africa is exactly what I want to do with my life. I'm incredibly passionate about it, 100 times more now than before the trip, and there is lots of work to be done. I have been able to talk about different frameworks and experiences back in school that other students or teachers were unfamiliar about which has offered a unique perspective in the classroom.

Would you recommend your program to others? Why?

Absolutely. This program provided me and my fellow classmates with one of the most unique, practical and rewarding study abroad experiences you could find. The research was impactful and meaningful while the opportunities were invaluable.