Ozarks Abroad class culminates in adventure to the Amazon

Release Date: 1/24/2013

University of the Ozarks Professors Dr. Bill Clary and Dr. Kim Van Scoy do not teach similar subjects. Clary teaches Spanish and Van Scoy specializes in biology and earth science. But the two professors combined their knowledge to create an interdisciplinary class they believed could end up being a life-changing experience for their students.

Clary, who has years of experience exploring various places throughout South America, thought the Amazon River region would be a great area to take an intrepid group of Ozarks explorers. 

"It was a trip that I've done before," he said. "I thought it would be a good trip to build a class around; an interdisciplinary class that combined different subjects centering on the Amazon."

Video recap of the trip, by Lauren Ray.

Watch a video recap of the trip, created by Lauren Ray.

Clary's idea was to design a class that combined the history and culture of the Amazon with rainforest ecology. He pitched his idea to Van Scoy and the class Ozarks Abroad: The Amazon was created.

"I went to Manaus (Brazil), which is deep in the Amazon, for a couple of months when I was teenager," Van Scoy said. "It was a life-changing experience for me. The idea that we could give our students a life-changing experience in the Amazon rainforest really appealed to me."

Clary used his expertise and language skills to organize the travel arrangements and teach the students with basic Spanish, while Van Scoy taught the biology, biodiversity, and rainforest ecology parts of the course.

The class was held during the 2012 Fall Semester, and nine students accompanied the professors on their journey to the Amazon region in early January. The trip began in Leticia, a remote Columbian city accessible only by plane or boat.

"Leticia, Columbia, is a fascinating place. It is part of what they call the Tres Fronteras, the three frontiers. It sits at the border between Brazil, Peru, and Columbia. It is an amazing place to go, because you've got three countries that meet there," Van Scoy said.

Ozarks Abroad Group

The first-ever Ozarks Abroad trip to the Amazon was led by U of O Professors Dr. William Clary and Dr. Kim Van Scoy and included nine students. (Photo courtesy of Matt Friant).

"The fusion of Peruvian, Brazilian, and Columbian culture makes this area really unique," Clary agreed. "You get this fusion in the center of the Amazon that becomes almost one culture in a sense. Their heritage comes more from the indigenous communities than their nationality. If you ask someone, they might say 'I'm Ticuna,' instead of 'I'm Columbian.'"

While Leticia served as their base of their trip, the group explored many other areas of the rainforest around them.  

"We went to this wonderful community called Puerto Nariño in Columbia," Van Scoy said. "It is a mixed community, but it has an indigenous community attached to it. It's what we would call a green community. It's very ecologically minded. It has lots of recycling practices. No motorized vehicles at all."

In Puerto Nariño, the group stayed in cabanas where they shared their hammocks with monkeys and macaws, went on a four-hour rainforest hike, and did some zip-lining in the trees.

Lauren Ray, a senior environmental studies major from Siloam Springs, Ark., said her favorite moment of the trip came during an afternoon boat tour just upriver from Puerto Nariño.

"We all squeezed into a long, skinny boat and leisurely glided along, checking out the unkempt, wild rainforest bordering the river," she said. "At one point, we actually floated through a flooded portion of the forest and emerged into a beautiful lagoon on the other side. Here, we visited an indigenous tribe, went swimming, and watched the pink freshwater dolphins playing in our boat's wake at sunset.  As we were approaching our eco-resort at the end of the day, three macaws came out of nowhere and landed right on the canopy of our boat, allowing us to take pictures of them and feed them.  To top that day off, we got to play with and feed squirrel monkeys at our resort."

Both Clary and Van Scoy were impressed with their students, many of whom had never traveled abroad.

"This wasn't a trip for everyone," Clary said. "You had to be a little adventurous and willing to put up with some places outside of your comfort zone. This was a more rustic study abroad opportunity. If the students hadn't had a great attitude about it all, I think they would have been very uncomfortable."

The students were up to the challenge of making the most of their adventure. They carried on conversations in Spanish, even with limited knowledge of the language, spent their evenings playing soccer with locals, and eagerly sampled local cuisine.

Ozarks Abroad student.

Kelsey Ramsey, a senior biology and environmental sciences major from Lamar, Ark., takes a photo of local children during the Study Abroad trip to the Amazon River. (Photo courtesy of Matt Friant).

Ray shared a memorable moment that left the weary group of hikers laughing.

"We were on an extended hike through the Amazon rainforest outside Puerto Nariño," she said. "We were all exhausted and nearing the end of our hike when we saw a creek crossing up ahead.  Our native guide informed us that that we needed to be especially careful while crossing the log because this particular creek was anaconda territory. I was about the third or fourth student to cross.  When I got to the middle of the log, I started losing balance and panicking.  After several seconds of wobbling to regain equilibrium, I looked behind me at the rest of my classmates and said, 'Well, guys, I'm going in!' and plopped into the creek.  The water was at least 7 feet deep at the center of the creek, so I completely submerged. When I surfaced, I saw looks of terror on my classmates' faces. I was in the water in anaconda territory! But as soon as they saw the huge grin on my face, they all started laughing with me."

In the end, Clary and Van Scoy were confident that their students really did experience a life-changing adventure in the Amazon.

"For both of us, it was really important that our students see how other people live and realize how similar we all are; To  realize that happiness comes from within," Van Scoy explained. "Here are these people experiencing what we would consider a life of poverty, in a house that has nothing but a couple of hammocks in it, and yet they're happy. They're caring. They're generous. I think it was a good experience for our students."

Clary agreed. "Students can't have a real experience to anchor their beliefs and knowledge of Latin American culture until they've been there," he explained. "It's a formative experience for them. It can change the course of their lives. Seeing how most of the world lives can really open their eyes to how we live our lives here. I think that all students should travel abroad as part of their educational experience."

The nine students are working on a presentation of videos, pictures, and stories that they will present to the campus community later this semester.

Ozarks Study Abroad group takes a swim.

University of the Ozarks students and professors cool off with a swim in the Amazon River during the Ozarks Abroad trip to South America in early January. (Photo courtesy of Matt Friant).