By: Andrew McMillan ’16
Since 2008, 112 Austin College students have been selected as Global Outreach Fellows, serving nonprofit organizations in 40 countries around the world. During summer 2015, Andrew McMillan ’16 was involved in conservation work and environmental education through service at Maximo Nivel in Puerto Maldonado, Peru.
The Amazon Rainforest: an intricate network of biodiversity, an ecosystem producing a vast range of services to life on this planet, and a place many claim as their home—a place that I called home for eight weeks during summer 2015. Living amongst the dense vegetation, surrounded by few people and untouched nature within the Peruvian Rainforest off the Madre de Dios River lent itself to so many lessons to be learned; one in particular took me further than the rest: how to listen.
Throughout our lives we are continually learning lessons about life that are supposed to benefit the way we approach different situations as we grow older. At some point as young adults we feel that we have things all figured out, that we are ready to handle any situation that is thrown our way … until reality strikes.
At Austin College, we have the opportunity to experience discussion-based classes directly with our professors, actively engage in research projects with professors interested in the overall growth of their research as well as their students, and intensive studies preparing us for what lies ahead. This might have contributed to the know-it-all mindset that I brought with me to the little community I called home: Casa Ita. In the big picture of my time in Peru working on jungle conservation, it took me about two weeks to “shut up and listen;” I thought I knew how to go about growing a local garden, what was best for trail maintenance, how to hold birds properly during research banding, and that list goes on.
However, the directors of the camp, Noe and Helmut, having grown up within the thriving bustle of wilderness, appeared to contain a “tad bit” of knowledge on all aspects of the rainforest. They could point out a bird by the sound of its call, know the scientific name of it and the common name; the species of plants that grew, their alternative uses, and what season they grew best; and navigate the land and river in the dark of night. Being exposed to such knowledge was not only humbling but also inspiring. For the remainder of my six weeks, my demeanor converted from a service experience mindset to a service learning mindset and gaining experience through the process.
Game-changer—a moment in time that causes the outcome of an experience to overturn. My “game-changer” moment occurred during week six of my stay, when a family of five from Boston, Massachusetts, came to visit the research camp where we lived. During the first day of the family’s visit, a morning canopy walk was scheduled that we volunteers were asked to lead. Weaving in and out of the trail to avoid fallen trees and oversized spider webs, and to find an easier path for their two children, our caravan stumbled upon a small tree full of Tanagers, a colorfully loud species of bird. Pulling out our binoculars, I was able to pick out five different species of the bird and guide our guests’ eyes to birds I was discussing with them. That moment, which might not appear to be grand for some, was spectacular for me. The directors of the camp were gleaming, and while the significance of what had just happened did not occur to me yet, when it did, I could not help but smile. Through my experiences in the jungle, I had learned by listening—well enough to teach another person what I was becoming passionate for.
As I look back, there is nothing I regret about my trip; rather, there are so many lessons I learned and valuable knowledge I gained. In the midst of my time, I had not realized the value of it all, or how it will apply in what I aspire to pursue, but when I take a step back and reflect on my experiences, I know for certain that the importance of listening goes further than one’s capability to learn; it reflects in one’s character. I know I can take what I have learned and apply it in my leadership opportunities, in my classroom experiences, and in my everyday life with my peers. Those are the lessons that will remain with me through all of the trials and successes of life. That is what I will remember most of my experience in Peru.
Andrew is completing a major in biology and a minor in art. He plans to complete an MBA and earn a doctorate in environmental studies, with the goal of becoming a college professor. He is a member of Austin College’s Service Station Board and of the Students Today, Alumni Tomorrow (STAT) ambassador program, among other activities.