By Georgia Jackson, University Communications and Marketing
This summer, Ryan McCleary, an associate professor of instruction in the College of Arts and Sciences, and 23 of his students traveled over 10,000 miles to Singapore to explore the local history and culture through the lens of urban ecology.
“Singapore is often considered a zero-world country because of its advanced infrastructure,” reads McCleary’s syllabus. “Because of its size and population, it faces unique environmental pressures and has had to develop innovative means of satisfying the needs of its population while trying to maintain its biodiversity and halt environmental degradation.”
In Singapore, McCleary’s objective was two-fold: Show students there’s more than one way to do things and demonstrate the age-old proverb, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
“We don’t have to be heading toward the climate cliff that we hear about all the time,” said McCleary, who teaches biology on the Sarasota-Manatee campus. “If a country like Singapore with 6 million people can decide they’re going to build buildings that all have plants and vines hanging off of them and actually create more vegetative space than they lost by cutting the area down where they put the building … there are solutions out there.”
The excursion, which included day trips to Indonesia and Malaysia, where students observed destruction caused by palm oil plantations, was the first of its kind for the university, which offers more than 30 study abroad opportunities to students each summer and dozens more throughout the academic year.
“I was amazed by how Singapore's infrastructure and public services have been thoughtfully designed to benefit citizens," said Maravilal Frost, a third-year student majoring in the health sciences, who developed a newfound appreciation for urban planning and public policy during her time in Singapore. "From the hawker centers that provide affordable meals and the immaculate public transit to the HDB flats, it was incredible to see the impacts of forward-thinking planning and governance. I hope to apply some of these insights about strategic development to my own community one day.”
For Frost, who has taken frequent trips to the region throughout her life to visit family, the field trip to Kampong Lorong Buangkok, the last surviving traditional village on the island, was a particularly meaningful experience.
“Having lived in a Malaysian kampong as a child, I felt nostalgia while walking through the village,” said Frost. “While Singapore has modernized rapidly, Kampong Lorong Buangkok represents a link to its past village roots. Being able to share a taste of my cultural heritage with my classmates made this visit deeply meaningful on a personal level.”
Tiffany Litzenberger, a fourth-year student majoring in the health sciences, who spent 15 years working in hospitality before coming to USF to pursue a bachelor’s degree, had a different experience. While touring the central business district, she connected with workers at Lau Pa Sat, a hawker center housed in one of the oldest Victorian structures in South-East Asia.
“They invited me to come work with them the following night," Litzenberger said. "Of course I didn’t want to say no to this unique experience, so I showed up the following night and worked a shift with my new hospitality friends.”
When tourists passed the stall, Litzenberger would tell them the satay — seasoned, skewered and grilled meat — at Satay Power 6 was so good, she had decided to work for them. At the end of her shift, Litzeneberger was compensated with a hearty serving.
In addition to Kampong Lorong Buangkok and the central business district, the group also took a night safari and visited the National Museum of Singapore. From there, they visited Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, the largest remaining primary forest fragment in the country; MacRitchie Reservoir; Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve; and Pasir Ris Park, where McCleary, a herpetologist, had the opportunity to share his love of snakes with the group.
For Jordan DePante, a biology major with a concentration in animal biology, the promise of snakes was one of the reasons he had signed up for the trip in the first place. While in Singapore, he especially valued the opportunity to meet the president and co-founders of the Singapore Herpetological Society, who took the students on a night hike.
“They showed us glowing mushrooms, tiny mouse deer and so many frogs,” DePante said. “They had a seemingly endless supply of wisdom and enthusiasm about every organism we encountered.”
Because the members of the Singapore Herpetological Society were not much older than DePante, the experience was a deeply inspiring one for the rising third-year student.
“As a student I’m very prone to feeling burnt out or concerned about my future,” DePante said, “But being able to see people a few years older than myself doing what I want to do reminded me why I am pursuing this degree. I think the lesson I took from that experience was to just keep going. It gave me a clearer image of the future I want.”
Home again, home again
At the end of the summer semester, McCleary's 23 students, many of whom had never traveled outside of the United States before, turned in reflective essays, articulating their experience and personal takeaways.
“Everybody has a different, unique perspective,” said McCleary, who is already at work planning next year's trip. “One person mentioned how they loved the trip, that it was the best thing they've ever done and that they were amazed at how many friends they made — lifelong friends.”
“Dr. McCleary did a great job of curating this study abroad program,” said Litzenberger, who was amazed by how much the group was able to do in such a short period of time.
“If you want to understand how Singapore developed into one of the most prosperous nations in Southeast Asia ... if you appreciate biological diversity and want to explore Singapore's wondrous parks and gardens, this is the trip for you,” Frost said.
For more information about study abroad opportunities, including the Singapore program, visit usf.edu/world/education-abroad/programs.