Fiji rewards exchange student

Nov 28, 2002, vol. 25, no. 7
By Diane Luckow

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When Erika Eliason (left) reflects back on her international exchange semester at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Fiji, she recalls images of 60-year-old village women wading through coral reefs in their long skirts as they learned more about their own marine eco-system from Eliason.

A SFU biology major, Eliason spent a rewarding five months at the USP where she not only pursued her studies and an independent research project, but also volunteered with a non-governmental organization to teach village women more about their marine ecosystem, its problems, and its potential.

“I taught two-day workshops in five different villages, discussing the impact of fishing on the community, the possibilities for ecotourism and about conservation,” says Eliason. “I didn't tell them what they should do, we just discussed the problems and empowered them to make their own decisions.”

Studying marine biology in Fiji proved to be a hands-on experience. With university facilities located on the ocean shore, Eliason was travelling by boat each week to mangrove plots and coral reefs to do experiments. “At SFU,” she says, “we never leave the mountain.”

For her independent research project, she gathered young volunteers aged 12-20 to help her examine three marine sanctuaries and determine whether or not the marine life was increasing.

“We did find that there was significantly more marine life in the marine protected areas,” she says. She recalls one instance when they came across a huge number of tiny sea cucumbers, normally a rarity, which bring huge prices at market. She had to forestall the students from carrying them off in their pockets.

Working with the villagers was a unique experience, notes Eliason, who says tourists and most students never have the opportunity to meet villagers.

She was invited to special village ceremonies, to birthday parties and generally participated in their culture. She also learned some of the Fijian language.

“It was an amazing experience and definitely changed my life,” she says. “I was hesitating between continuing on to medical school or doing a master's degree in biology. Now, I'll definitely do the master's degree because I'd like to make a difference in people's lives.”

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