Making it to Madagascar

One SUNY Cobleskill Student’s Experience Studying Abroad

by Jessica Travis Kelsey4

Let’s talk about bravery. Being brave is an endeavor that can be as simple as finding the courage to raise your hand and participate in class, or as elaborate as suiting up in your gear and rushing straight into the heart of a burning building. Sometimes an act of bravery can be small and sometimes it can be large, but it always starts with a little voice inside of you that knows your deepest desires and unlocked potential. For SUNY Cobleskill Wildlife Management student, Kelsey DeZalia, her inspiration to be brave came from a reoccurring desire within her to expand her horizons and travel the world.

“I knew I wanted to study abroad ever since I was in high school. I knew I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. Everyone said to ‘do it while you’re young,’ ‘do it in college – it’s cheaper in college than doing it all on your own.’ So one day I woke up and just knew this was it. I was going to do it,” says DeZalia, beaming with a knowledge and wisdom that greatly surpasses her years. With a full understanding that the resources on campus provided a perfect launching pad to finally pursue a dream she had harbored for quite some time, DeZalia took the opportunity to discuss her options with Study Abroad Coordinator for SUNY Cobleskill, Andrew Lucas.

Stemming from Lucas’ expansive knowledge and supportive guidance, she was able to participate in a program that paired perfectly with her campus studies and worked well within her desired budget and time frame. With the hesitant yet lovingly supportive blessing from her family, DeZalia was armed with her new passport and ready to obtain her very first stamp out of the country to the stunning wilderness of Madagascar.

So why choose to study abroad in Madagascar of all places? While some dream of roaming the streets of Paris or catching rays on the beaches of Brazil, DeZalia knew that her path would lead her to somewhere a little more unexpected. “Andrew brought up Australia, and he brought up Madagascar. Everyone was very enthusiastic about Australia, but there was something about Madagascar. I knew that was it.” Following her intuition and choosing Madagascar was a decision that proved to be particularly successful. Here DeZalia could take her knowledge from the classroom and exercise it in a real-world, first-hand experience.

DeZalia’s time spent in Madagascar was filled with a vast variety of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. The first ten days of her Lemursinternship were spent observing a species that certainly does not roam the rolling hills of Schoharie County – the lemur. Directed by Malagasy guides, DeZalia and others within the program spent this time extensively researching a specific type of lemur, Sifakas. The experience is one that she recalls with admiration and excitement, “It was crazy research,” she said.  “We set up tents and there was no running water or electricity, there was no light. The only light you had was a flashlight. It poured some days but it was amazing! You could see the galaxy! You could see all the stars. It was amazing and beautiful.”As far as which species of Lemur captured DeZalia’s heart – without a doubt, it was the Indri. “They do this singing thing – it actually sounds like a whale on land. It’s a sound unlike anything I had ever heard before. I fell in love with it.”

The fifteen credits of coursework DeZalia was required to partake in expanded the definition of the classroom from a simple desk and chair to a massive rainforest and an entire unfamiliar world at her fingertips. After her first ten days studying lemurs, DeZalia continued her internship by traveling the sprawling landscape of Madagascar and observing different ecosystems, interacting with the locals, and participating in activities that encompass the thrill of traveling abroad. It was a time that was unlike any other.

“We’re going to sound so spoiled, but we spent a few days on the coast in this huge house,” she said, describing it as a spacious place two steps from the beach. The possibilities were abundant and the local culture was captivating. “There were vendors with crafts and food. They took us out on the water on handmade sailboats. We were fed fish and lobster that was cooked for us right on the beach and we even got the opportunity to scuba dive. ”

Kelsey with kidsThough DeZalia’s explorations in Madagascar were brimming with delight and enchantment, what touched her heart and mind the most was the overwhelming poverty of the Malagasy population. Interacting with the locals and witnessing first-hand the scarceness of wealth was not only powerfully humbling, but also completely life changing. “These people are lucky if they have a shirt on their back. They live in these primitive type huts, out of clay and straw. You wouldn’t think that still exists because of how we live here in the United States, but it was really something else.” Where many may shake their head in disgust or convey pity for such a seemingly poor lifestyle, DeZalia had the pleasure of witnessing how the lack of material wealth in Madagascar does nothing to dampen the overwhelmingly kind and joyful spirit of the Malagasy people.

Through her participation with the organization Global Grins, which supplies a hundred toothbrushes to every individual traveling to a third world country who is willing to hand them out, DeZalia was gifted with the deep appreciation and delight the Malagasy children harbored towards her for such a kind gift. “These kids would get so excited and grateful over a toothbrush, and they sang us a song to show their gratitude. You give them anything and they will love you forever,” she reminiscences with a beaming smile.

If you have ever found yourself stopping and considering whether or not studying aboard is a journey you may want to take – DeZalia is adamant that one should seize the moment and follow that path. “I thoroughly believe everyone should travel to a third world county, just to get that experience. It is so humbling,” she said. The Study Aboard program at SUNY Cobleskill is passionate about connecting every student with a destination that will redefine not only their education but also their lives, and her experience was nothing short of that. “The programs through the study aboard office are very well designed to give students an entire experience. You’re able to understand completely what the people are like and the country. I was able to see animals that I had only ever watched on the television screen.”

So what’s next for Kelsey DeZalia? The future is an open book that is filled with wondrous possibilities. Though she will graduate this week with a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management, her deep-seated passion for traveling abroad will resume with her participation in a SUNY Cobleskill Summer 2014 travel abroad program to South Africa. The journey ahead of her will surely be filled with new people to meet and new sights to see. She’s ready to sprint forward on her global journey with enthusiasm and an open heart, which some may consider a tremendous act of bravery – bravely diving head first into a great big world.