20 Years of Faraway Places: Carla Bossard

Carla BossardWhen Carla Bossard was growing up, she had a favorite song that she played every day as she practiced the piano. It went:

Faraway places with strange sounding names,
Far away over the sea.
Those faraway places with strange
sounding names,
Are calling, calling to me.

Since she joined the Saint Mary’s faculty as a biology professor in 1991, she has led 20 January Term travel courses to faraway places with strange sounding names, and under her enthusiastic guidance, generations of students have been introduced to the wider world. Bossard’s students have snorkeled in the Cook Islands and Fiji to examine the ecology of coral reefs, hiked through the montane forests of Nepal and Tibet and the tropical forests of Sumatra, photographed the cultures of Morocco and Indochina, and learned about conservation and culture in Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, Bali and Java. And those are just a few of the classes.

“I go to places that are really different. I don’t go to London. I don’t go to Paris,” said Bossard, who is now chair of the Biology Department. “We’re in the backside of no place. And almost always, as part of it, we do a home stay. So students are really in contact with the locals.” The resulting experience is often lifechanging for her students.

Bineydeep Mushiana, a senior who took two of Bossard’s Jan Term courses, said, “It’s the best experience I’ve had so far in my life. She doesn’t just teach through one lens but through the environmental lens and the cultural experience, too. My eyes were opened to the way people live their lives, that there’s much more than just America.”

Bossard loves travel — she has visited 104 different countries so far — and she is fascinated by scientific research, especially in her specialty of montane forest ecosystems. But that’s not the heart of why she leads Jan Term classes. The real reason, she said, is the way the trips open students’ minds. “It knocks the legs out from under them. It makes them think about: What actually is important in life?” she said. “And that’s what I love about Jan Term. It makes them think about what makes a life worthwhile? What makes a life valuable?”

A memorable trip to study coral reef ecology in the Cook Islands in 2001 is a case in point. It wasn’t easy getting there. The plane to the tiny island of Atiu held just five people and the pilot, so it took five trips to shuttle in the students and their gear. But once there, they were welcomed with open arms. In fact, on their last day, the villagers held a festival in their honor, Bossard recalled. “We spent a couple of days helping them collect things, weave things and dye things to honor us!”

In the process, the students learned about a culture very different from their own — one in which people don’t invest in nice houses or furnishings, they invest in friendship. In Morocco, students learned that hospitality is king. “If someone wanders in off the desert, you take care of them,” she said. “We had a lame camel in Morocco, and the local villagers took the stone out of its foot — and then fed us dates and sweets.” After 20 years, Bossard has the Jan Term experience down to a science. Two recent Jan Term travel courses — one to Indonesia and one to Thailand, Laos and Singapore — were among her favorites because they came off without a single hitch. But it hasn’t always been that way.

Last year, during a “Summer Jan Term” trip to Tibet, she and her students had to rescue their guide from a Wild West-style brawl between Chinese and Tibetans in a local restaurant. And in 1994, on a trip to study the ecology of the Baja Peninsula, all five bridges along Mexico’s Highway 1 were washed out by unexpected torrential rains, and her soggy group had to take an arduous route along the Sea of Cortez to reach their destination. “We still have reunions of that class,” she said. “It wasn’t easy, so it created a really strong bond between all of us. It was like, ‘Wooooo! We survived.’ ”

It seems that nothing can stop Bossard from guiding her students to remote corners of the globe. In 1995, on the last day of a trip to study the tropical forests of Sumatra, she slipped and fell off a cliff into a riverbed, nearly severing her spine. She was airlifted to a hospital in Singapore, where doctors said she might never walk again. But she proved them wrong. Despite lingering effects from the injury, she hiked above 12,000 feet altitude in Tibet last year, and this January, she led her students on a three-day trek at 10,000 feet to Simien National Park in Ethiopia.

Bossard loves teaching Jan Term classes because the lessons learned in the field — whether they’re about biology or photography or culture — seem to stick with students better than lessons learned in the classroom or even the lab. “If you’re diving on a coral reef when you’re studying coral reef ecology, you’re immersed in it. You can smell it and taste it,” she said. “They don’t forget it. Ever. It goes straight into the hippocampus. Zap!” Another reason she keeps going, she admitted, is that she hopes that by teaching students to value and respect other people and other cultures, she will help them to become more open-minded and less susceptible to the kind of cultural stereotyping that leads to conflict and war.

“If people have a homestay with someone in Fez or Yap or Fiji, it’s highly unlikely they’re going to want something bad to happen to these people later,” she said. “I joke to my husband that this is my effort toward world peace — 15 students at a time.”