By: Andrew Bates, Auburn 2015, intern, and trip leader
I graduated high school in 2011 and headed to Auburn as a Mechanical Engineer. After my Junior year in college I attended a Spanish language study abroad trip in Madrid, Spain. It was my first time leaving the county and I loved it. I knew that I wanted to go abroad again as a student. I talked to a friend about her study abroad experiences, and she strongly recommended the one she had done the year previously in Vorovoro, Fiji. When she explained the trip to me, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
So, as a Mechanical Engineer, I got to go on a study abroad trip to Vorovoro, Fiji in 2015. Looking back on it, I could have not made a better choice. While the title given to the study abroad trip was "Sustainability in Action", the trip was so much more than this. During my trip to Vorovoro as a student, I was able to use my background in mechanical engineering to fortify the rainwater catchment structure and to lead an initiative in designing "Rocket Stoves" for safer and more efficient wood-burning cooking. But, Vorovoro was so much more than an opportunity to practice engineering skills. While I loved my trip to Spain as I got to learn about a different culture, this could not come close to the cultural immersion experience that I had in Fiji. On Vorovoro, you live alongside the Fijians. You work, play, laugh, and cook together. You become friends with the Fijians. I have now traveled to over 20 countries through my studies (including living in Sweden for a year), but none of these experiences have given me a cultural experience anywhere close to what I have experienced on Vorovoro. The cultural immersion is truly unprecedented, as far as I can tell. This is due, I believe, to both the radical hospitality of the Fijians and the integrated structure that Bridge the Gap has set up for visiting students.
Aside from my experiences with Mechanical Engineering and cultural immersion, Vorovoro still has loads to offer. Due to Vorovoro, I have, for the first time in my life, become interested in the plant and animal life around me. I grew up outdoors camping, canoeing, backpacking, caving etc. I loved the rugged terrain, mountain views, and sunsets over the lakes, but the animals and plants I honestly pretty much ignored. However, living on an island in the South Pacific that depends so heavily on the flora and fauna has created an entirely new perspective in me. Now, I find myself always looking at the plants and animals around me, fascinated with how their existence relates to each other and to us as humans. Additionally, when I first went to Vorovoro as a student, I did not have a strong sense of what sustainability meant on a personal level. However, after seeing what a traditional Fijian, and sustainable, lifestyle looks like, I have doubled down on my commitment to live simply and with an awareness of materialism and personal consumption. The effects of environmental change and the death of coral reefs is painfully obvious when you live on an island that depends so heavily on the coral reef and the fish that it provides. The snorkeling/scuba within sight of Vorovoro is amazing and is nearly untouched by humans. Leone, the only scuba dive master in all of the north island, grew up in the Mali tribe and knows the reef better than perhaps anybody else in the whole world. Hearing him talking about the changing reef is sobering and serves as a call-to-action for all of us. The community based sustainability practices that are being employed on Vorovoro and Mali Island are inspiring. The importance of conservation and management of biodiversity really hits home while as a student on Vorovoro.
I also wanted to share a bit more about how Vorovoro has influenced my career specifically. As an engineer, I was always amazed at how when I went in for interviews, nobody asked about the year I had spent at a manufacturing facility working as a manufacturing engineer. Instead, everybody talked to me about Fiji. They wanted to know what exactly I was doing on this remote Fijian island, and how this fit into the bigger picture of who I was an an engineer. I was somebody who could work in a foreign work environment. I was somebody that could lead a diverse team. I was somebody who could meet deadlines while capitalizing on scarce resources. The one month I spent in Fiji was actually more beneficial to my career than the year I spent at my manufacturing job. Following graduation, I applied for the Fulbright scholarship to study in Sweden. I wanted to do research on solar panels that could also filter arsenic-contaminated water for drinking. The application revolved around the time I had spent in Fiji, my new understanding of just how integral fresh water is to a community, and to my experience working and living in foreign environments. I was awarded the Fulbright and was able to accomplish my dream of living abroad for a year. I am almost certain that this would not have been the case if it had not been for my time in Fiji.