The Oberlin Stories Project

On studying away

Peter Nguyen ’16

“I’m very passionate about exploring the world because I believe experiencing many different cultures is integral to developing a wider understanding, as well as a deeper connection to one’s self.”

A group of people seated in a boat on a mountain lake.

One of my dreams is to travel the world. It sounds cliché, but I’m very passionate about exploring the world because I believe experiencing many different cultures is integral to developing a wider understanding, as well as a deeper connection to one’s self.

I wanted to embark on this journey by applying to a study abroad program my junior year (in no small part because many of my friends at Oberlin have studied abroad before). I stumbled upon New Zealand as a destination; it was on my list of places I really wanted to visit because of its infamous beautiful scenery. Plus, as an environmental studies and geology double-major, a semester in New Zealand would be perfect in helping me complete my majors.

The Frontiers Abroad Earth Systems program caught my eye because of its diverse course description, and I immediately applied. The agenda consisted of a five-week field camp, each week exploring a different environmental science: marine biology, coastal ecology, geology, and indigenous knowledge. This camp would allow me to experience many different fields, helping me narrow my career path, while also easing me into my semester by allowing me to live and learn with the same group of 15 students and professors throughout the five weeks. Our time together away from the Internet and bonding through a multitude of activities made me feel more comfortable knowing that I would have friends before being exposed to an entirely new school environment.

Going to New Zealand was extremely exciting because the country’s beauty was spectacular; every place was breathtaking beyond my expectations. What you feel while there is very different than what you feel when seeing a picture of the scene. There was easy access to beautiful getaway places via buses and hostels, which encouraged me take trips every other weekend and on breaks. These trips were not just to sate my curiosity but opportunities to reflect on life with the calmness of mountains and forests around me.

During my semester abroad, I took four courses that explored different subjects. A particularly interesting course was on Mori and indigenous development. I learned about how Mori communities must be consulted before conducting any kind of research or managing land use policies. It was intriguing to understand how differently the indigenous people of New Zealand are integrated within society compared to the United States. Although the Mori are still marginalized, New Zealand society and government strives to include Mori communities within their development schemes. The lessons taken from this relationship can be used as a model to help tackle issues other indigenous people around the world are currently facing.

Throughout the semester, I also did research looking at patterns in nitrate concentrations in groundwater around the Christchurch city region. Nitrate concentrations are a problem in New Zealand due to high agricultural runoff. Consumption of high nitrate concentrations can lead to Blue Baby Syndrome, in which the oxygen supply in the body becomes slowly depleted. I tried to understand how high these concentrations increase each year and how interrelated the concentrations between groundwater wells are. The research is very data intensive, so I only managed to explore already recorded datasets from the previous 30 years, but it was enjoyable for me to find patterns.

Seeing how this nitrate issue is also a problem in many other places around the world influenced me to become more interested water sustainability and accessibility. Water has become an increasing issue, with many water supplies gradually being exhausted and many communities lacking access to clean, potable water. It will become more difficult in the future, but from this research, I discovered that I want to help communities, especially in the developing world, to have access to clean, potable water and help develop technologies where the developed world can use water sustainably.

My study-abroad experience was well worth it in that I was able to narrow down what I can pursue for a career. I also learned a lot about myself living on my own, traveling to new landscapes, meeting new people, and gaining new skills through research. While I was initially nervous to be away from home for six months, by the end of the program I didn’t want to leave! Now, I’m bringing all that I have learned and applying it to the communities back home as an important bridge in my journey.