Learning about baby turtles – and economic-environmental relationships

Gareth Barkin’s students snorkel, spend time with baby turtles and explore complex relationships between economy and environment in Southeast Asia.

And with a recent grant, the University of Puget Sound’s Southeast Asia programs will expand.

A few weeks ago, Barkin learned the university had won the $400,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, which the school announced Tuesday.

The funding will allow the school to host an annual Southeast Asia symposium and offer new Asian language classes. It also will pay for taking students abroad each summer for a three-week field school after they’ve spent a semester studying the language and culture of the region.

Barkin spoke with The News Tribune recently about the new initiative from Taiwan, where he’s in the middle of helping to lead a different student program. The 45-year-old associate professor of anthropology and Asian studies has been with the university since 2008.

He explained how existing partnerships the school has with Southeast Asian nonprofits, universities and wildlife rehabilitation centers, among other organizations, are important to the new initiative.

Q: What does this grant mean for UPS?

A: We have a lot of students who are really interested in environmental issues, and Southeast Asia as well.

By bringing them over there, by having the chance to go and spend time and try and understand things from a more local perspective, they really develop a more complex understanding of the kind of challenges we face.

It can only come from a much more grounded experience in the place. And that’s also why we’ve built in elements like language. They’re hopefully learning enough to be able to communicate a little bit, and have that be a two-way street.

Q: Why have students study this particular area?

A: Southeast Asia is a really important region. It’s high in biodiversity, and it’s very challenged by environmental destruction for various reasons, some of which are directly linked to us in the U.S.

They’re able to have a much deeper and broadened understanding of those complexities and how difficult a problem it is, and they might better approach it in the future.

Q: How did this program come about?

A: We’ve been working on it for a few years. We got a ($50,000) pilot grant in 2013-2014.

The way that field school worked is that they’re connected to a semester of study on campus (first). Students aren’t just going abroad. You already have the background to be able to engage in those topics productively.

You’re not just arriving and throwing them in a rice paddy or something like that. We had an on-campus program to try to develop awareness of these types of issues.

Q: What was that pilot field school like for students?

A: We were at a university in a more urban area of Indonesia — Yogyakarta. We did some language, more anthropological kind of work. And I also got a lot of Indonesian students from the university to help with the program, building relationships.

Then we went to North Sulawesi, where we spent time in national parks and in marine protected areas. They did sort of a coral reef assessment — diving, snorkeling — to add to a database on reef health.

There’s a good photo of them releasing a bunch of baby turtles. It’s always fun to hang out with a bunch of baby turtles.

The most important thing is we’re working with these local partners, so they’re getting perspectives on what’s going on that takes into account local people’s needs.

Q: Part of this involves new language classes on campus, right?

A: Indonesian, Malay and Thai. Those are the languages we plan to offer. Indonesian and Malay are almost the same language. It’s like British English and American English. The idea is we’ll teach the language of the next year’s field school. Next summer, the field school will be in Thailand, so next year we’re having Thai.

There’s clearly a demand for these less-taught languages.

Q: The core focus of this program and the grant is the environmental challenges in these countries?

A: It’s the core, but there’s also the idea that we need to understand local culture to be able to engage with environmental issues. This is why we’re also working very closely with these partners, so it isn’t just me, but actual people on the ground who live and work in those places.

My personal goal is to make people want to go back. How much can you do in one summer? The truth is, you kind of need to keep going.

Q: How did you get involved in studying Southeast Asia?

A: After college, I just didn’t know really what to do with myself. I’d always wanted to travel to Asia. I signed on with a volunteer program and worked in development in Indonesia for a couple years. I studied psychology as an undergraduate.

Being in Indonesia kind of led me to anthropology, not the other way around.

Since I’ve been teaching as a professor, I’ve taken it upon myself to give students a little piece of what I had.

Q: Anything else people should know about the grant?

A: There’s another core component, and that is this Southeast Asia symposium. The idea is we’re giving students and faculty a forum to share. We can invite people from the universities, from the nonprofits to come to campus and share their perspectives.

We have three Southeast Asianists on our campus, four depending on how you look at it. Most other (Northwest liberal arts schools) have one or two, at the most.

This symposium is going to be a forum to invite keynote speakers, big names in Southeast Asian environmental issues, to speak on our campus.

I’m hoping to broaden the audience a little bit by having some Southeast Asian arts and performances take place. Thai dance, for example.