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Madison Cleveland ’19 has been fascinated by nature from a young age. The North Country native grew up wanting to be a veterinarian and used to doodle pictures of the rainforest. Later, when she started attending SUNY Potsdam as a biology major and honors student, she started feeding and caring for the department’s reptiles, and took on a project to study the local wood turtle population as a Presidential Scholar.

So, given all that, perhaps it’s no surprise that she leapt at the chance to visit Belize along with eight other students through Dr. Glenn Johnson’s 14-day “Tropical Ecology and Conservation” travel course, held over the recent Winterim semester.

Once there, Cleveland kept a running tally of each and every species of fish, bird, reptile, amphibian and mammal that she and her classmates saw—with photo evidence whenever possible. She spent hours in the rainforest, learning to identify different bird species by their appearance and their calls. Whenever the group returned from fishing or snorkeling, Cleveland would ask the field trip’s co-instructor, Scott Schlueter, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to help them identify all the species they had just seen.

“To be able to go from the tropical savannah to the rainforest was just breathtaking. It was everything that I imagined. I didn’t want to leave,” Cleveland said.

One night, while the group was camped out on a small island, Lime Caye, she stayed up until 2 a.m., waiting for a nest of baby sea turtles to hatch and make their way to the ocean.

“I love turtles. I can’t tell you how excited I was,” she said.

For her part, Jazmin Santana ’18 saw the trip as a chance to push herself. A communications major from the Bronx, she was primarily interested in the opportunities for cultural exchange that the trip presented.

“As a Dominican, I am really interested in Latin American history and wanted to get to know more about Belize and its history,” she said. “I wanted to get a feel for myself, and get out of my comfort zone. Living in the jungle for six days, especially as a city kid, was definitely a new experience.”

One pretty vivid example for her was learning how to capture and identify small mammals in for an experiment, aimed at comparing the biodiversity of the rainforest to a sustainably managed cacao farm.

“We had to learn how to catch and hold rats. Growing up in the Bronx, you learn to run from rats, not catch them!” she said.

Dr. Johnson designed the course so that his students would get to explore multiple ecosystems and observe an array of animals in all habitats, in the most direct and hands-on ways possible. The students spent time birding, fishing, snorkeling and hiking, getting to see tropical deciduous and evergreen forests, pine-palmetto scrub forests, rainforests, river systems, mangroves, coral reefs, wetlands, sawgrass marshes and deepwater lagoons.

“The idea behind this course was twofold: One, to the extent possible, embed students in a new environment and while there, have them each do an ecological research project of their own design in a short period of time, and two, to see a diverse array of places in a tropical setting,” Johnson said. “I really want to get students out of the bubble and get them in an international setting, so that they can be exposed to ecosystems that simply don’t exist here.”

This is the second time that Johnson and Schlueter have led a trip to Belize, and they hope to return again. Johnson is accompanying another four-week field course to Kenya this summer, along with lead instructor Dr. Jessica Rogers. That class will allow students to use Kenya as a case study to learn about conservation issues, solutions and practices in several regions of the country.

Johnson said he really enjoys seeing the students make connections and see rare species with their own eyes. The sheer array of animals that they encountered was memorable in and of itself, but beyond that, he was happy that the students also got to learn about the country’s history and Mayan culture, as well as important contemporary issues facing the developing nation, such as how to grow their economy in a sustainable way.

For instance, the group visited plantations where cacao is being farmed without clearcutting the full rainforest canopy, a practice that is now being examined for growing coffee and bananas as well. They also learned about the importance of reducing waste and an individual’s environmental impact while staying at the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education ecolodge, which can only be reached via a six-mile one-way hike into the rainforest.

“We would see something that was broken, and people would say, ‘This had to travel six miles to get here. Let’s see if we can fix it,’” Cleveland said. “I learned that we should treat everything as if we only have one of it. You’ll find that you have so much more respect for yourself and everything around you.”

“It was physically demanding, but I learned so much and saw so much,” Santana said.

As she thinks ahead to her senior year, Cleveland is interested in either returning to intern at the Belize Zoo—where the students spent time getting behind-the-scenes tours and helping care for the animals—or joining Johnson on the big journey to Kenya this summer.

Either way, she said, her heart is set on one thing: seeing more of the world.

“This trip really made me realize how much I want to travel. The world feels very small here in Potsdam, so to go to another small part, in Belize, made me realize how large the world truly is, if that makes sense. It was just so meaningful,” Cleveland said.