When most people think of Tonga, they envision a tropical vacation of palm-fringed beaches and sleepy days spent in the sun. But when Linda Herkenhoff, a business professor at Saint Mary’s, stopped there on a trip from Australia, she saw a perfect opportunity for students to learn about global warming firsthand while helping others.
She returned this year with business Professor Jo Ann Heydenfeldt and 15 Saint Mary’s College seniors for a January Term course that was anything but restful. During an intensive two-week program, the students immersed themselves in environmental research and service work in the grassroots communities in Vava’u and Tongatapu.
“Tonga is the perfect place to experience the harmony of man and nature,” said Herkenhoff. “The warmth and friendliness of the Tongan people in combination with the idyllic South Seas brought the concepts of sustainability and green practices alive for our students.”
Because it was created from a flat coral reef, Tonga’s very existence is threatened by the rising sea levels created by global warming, making the topic a high priority to the Tongan people.
The Saint Mary’s students teamed up with the nonprofit Vava’u Environmental Protection Association (VEPA) to plant mangroves as part of the Koleva Village mangrove regeneration project. Mangroves are an important resource in the island nation because they protect settlements from the encroaching sea and serve as hatcheries for fish and other aquatic life.
The group also participated in an underwater survey on the health of a coral reef in Vaka’eitu, measuring the reef to determine whether there is an increase in sea level. Information they gathered contributed to the Dive Vava’u data collection initiative for the global Coral Watch program. The coordinators are hoping to build on the Tongan experience in the MBA program and in a 2012 Jan Term course.
Half a world away, Rebecca Carroll and 13 students laced up their hiking boots and took the trip of a lifetime as a part of the class “South Africa at Four Miles an Hour.” For a month, Carroll and her students immersed themselves in the culture and natural beauty of South Africa.
The journey started with a one-week service project repairing roofs for the Khayalami Children’s Home, which serves orphans of AIDS. Carroll noted that some of the students had never held a paintbrush or a hammer but fell in love with the work and serving the children.
“On our last day one of the women said ‘I’m not leaving here until we finish that roof.’ And all 13 students headed up the ladders and finished the work in the dark,” Carroll said. “They were so dedicated to these children that they didn’t want to leave the project unfinished.”
Tonga content adapted from a story by taimionline.