Far Beyond the Classroom

Auburn students transformed by study abroad program in Fiji

Published: November 07, 2019
Updated: November 12, 2019
Font Size

Article body

Auburn University students who study abroad in Fiji experience a true immersion, becoming one with members of the Mali tribe.

The moment they step off the large wooden motor boat onto the beach of Vorovoro, students let go of life as they know it. All the worries and drama of college life are swept away in the ocean tide.

They let go, partly because they have to. Vorovoro is so far off the grid, it only has solar-powered electricity and cell service is spotty. There is no running water or indoor plumbing. No air conditioning either.

No comforts of home.

Students let go because that is life on this island.

“This program isn’t about coming and seeing; this program is about coming and being,” said Kate Thornton, director of global education in the College of Human Sciences at Auburn.

Vorovoro is home to the Mali tribe, a traditional Fijian tribe. The patriarch is Tui Mali, or chief of Mali. When Auburn students arrive on Vorovoro, they perform a sevu sevu (say-vu say-vu), a traditional Fijian ceremony during which the natives greet visitors and visitors ask Tui Mali for permission to stay on the island.

Tui Mali not only grants permission, but also invites the group to join his family. Family is key to Tui Mali. He is known for saying: 1+1=1.

“When our culture comes, when Auburn students come, it means we meet Fijian culture, it’s not a clash,” said senior global studies major Jimbo Alldredge. “It’s not just that we are next to each other, it means that we become one culture instead of two, coexisting. I’ve really seen that play out on Vorovoro and how we are welcomed into the Mali tribe.”

“I’ve never felt more at home in a place that wasn’t my home,” added junior Caroline Cook, an exercise science major. “Even in Auburn. Auburn is my family; Auburn is my place. I [will] love that place until the day I die. But this place is just something more. I have a family here. One plus one truly is one.

“We’re all from different places, but together here on Vorovoro and in Fiji, we’re all together, and we’re all one family.”

A special place

Vorovoro is one of 333 tropical islands that make up Fiji. Junior Hope Hudgins, a global studies major, described it as “a hidden gem.”

“When you think of Fiji, you think of the little bungalows on the water and you think of the resorts, but what you don’t see is the thing behind the curtain and that’s what this place is for me.

“It means so much to me to know that I get to be a part of something that a lot of people won’t ever experience whether they come to Fiji or not. And Vorovoro means so much to me because of how much they want to advance their culture in the future.”

It can be difficult, even awkward, for students to let go of what is comfortable and embrace a new normal, albeit temporarily.

But once they do, they gain a renewed sense of life.

“This place means community,” said senior Ashley Magee. “It means love.” The people don’t possess as much as Americans, but it doesn’t matter “because they have love, they have community and they just have so much gratitude for life in general.”

Cook, who admitted she was “out of her element” in Fiji, is convinced the program provides something that no other study abroad option could possibly offer.

“Living with a tribe on an island is a completely different story. We’re in the middle of the Pacific [Ocean], had to take planes, trains and automobiles to get here,” she said. “You’re not just studying abroad, you’re becoming a part of a family. I feel everyone should try to experience that if they can.”

In her role in the College of Human Sciences, Thornton promotes a number of study abroad experiences throughout Europe including the Joseph S. Bruno Auburn Abroad in Italy Program, as well as to Jordan, Peru, Nepal, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Malaysia, Thailand and South Africa. She works closely with faculty to ensure students gain skills on each trip to help them compete in a global economy.

Fiji, however, is her brainchild. She wrote the grant to develop the study abroad program in 2012.

Thornton calls Vorovoro “unfiltered, untouched.”

“That’s just a really special thing that you can’t manufacture,” she said.

“This program in particular is for the student who really wants a true adventure—not many people come to this part of the world. The chance to live, see and experience something that most people in their whole lifetime won’t see or experience is extraordinary.”

Making a difference

On Vorovoro, Auburn students eat, live and work with the Mali people. They have helped tear down dilapidated buildings and rebuild new ones, including a grand bure, which is used as a meeting place for the village. Students have taught nurses on the island an inexpensive way to make reading glasses. Auburn has delivered school supplies and sports equipment on more than one occasion.

Students have also helped provide water catchment systems to the island where fresh drinking water is limited. Auburn has more than doubled the island’s water capacity.

“We have been working for many years to increase the amount of water that they can catch, which then increases the amount of guests they can have and the amount of time people can spend here on the island,” explained Thornton.

The grand bure has been used to host government meetings and Tui Mali and his family have hosted local school groups to learn about Fijian culture.

“Not only do our students get to learn Fijian culture and to be immersed in it, to see the value of living in a different way than what we live in the U.S., but they also are empowering and enabling the Fijian, the Mali tribe, to preserve their own culture and then to spread that throughout Fiji,” said Thornton.

Auburn’s contributions to Vorovoro are meaningful to Tui Mali and the future for the Mali tribe.

“I’m thinking of water and dorms and more people will come, and that way I’ll see Vorovoro, it’s already started growing, but it will be bearing flowers,” he said, meaning they will be able to host even more people.

Auburn students mean much to Tui Mali.

“I need someone to talk to,” he said. “When the students are here, I’m happy. I go and visit them and talk.”

Magee, a global studies major, recalled how performing the Meke (may-kay), a traditional Fijian dance, brought much happiness to Tui Mali. She said it was hard at first, but once everyone started to understand the steps, they were ready to show Tui Mali.

“When we did it for him, I think that was like the turning point and everyone had a good time,” she said. “While we didn’t have that big of a crowd for Tui Mali, he was so happy to see somebody who wasn’t technically part of their culture—we are now—but we weren’t technically part of their culture, we weren’t taught this when we were young. We were performing it for them.”

Students even did the Meke for people in the village, which Magee said was like “a recital for our parents.” The villagers cheered for the students and threw baby powder, a way Fijians celebrate, much like throwing confetti.

“I didn’t know what that meant,” she said. “It means happiness, apparently.”

Senior Mariah Watts, a human development and family studies major, said she appreciated how Tui Mali and the others gave students consent to live how the Mali live.

“Life is slow here and it’s okay to just be,” she said. “I always feel like I’m not doing enough or I’m always behind, but here, you just have permission to enjoy life and to be present. It’s a being culture instead of a doing culture, and I’m going to miss that.”

“In America, our culture is all based around doing, and here in Fiji they really value being and they value community connections,” Thornton added. “Those are concepts that are really hard to understand unless you invest in the place.”

Making an investment

With the Fiji trip dubbed ‘Sustainability in Action,’ senior Matt Hulker said he thought it was just for global studies majors like himself.

“There are people here from a bunch of different majors and they all have grown and learned from the experience,” he said. “And not just about sustainability, but being immersed in the culture challenges you and helps anyone grow.”

The program seemed ideal for junior Hailey Conquest when her major was marine biology. Now a global studies major, she realized Fiji is the best option for every Auburn student, regardless of major.

“We don’t think about what we’re doing and how our actions are affecting the planet, but this program makes us more aware of that,” she said. “Climate change is directly affecting people in Fiji. There’s trash washing up on the beach that isn’t their trash. It’s America or other countries.

“Living here with the people who it’s affecting really brings it home to you.”

It hit home for junior Natalie Jaroch as well. Seeing how human behavior negatively influences people she cares for has inspired the global studies major to live a more sustainable life.

For Alldredge, the program gave him a renewed sense of community and what people can accomplish when they work together.

“Giving back is second nature to Fijians and something we can learn a lot of and definitely something to take back to the U.S.,” he said.

Senior global studies major Shelby Sires called the experience “very raw” because you leave so much behind—everything from cell phones to the busyness of American life—and focus on the relationships that you have.

“That has been a really big part for me,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve had better cross-cultural relationships than here in Fiji.”

Experiencing life at its most basic level influenced Hudgins, who said it made her feel like a more globalized person.

“I want to use this knowledge that I’ve gained from this experience to become more aware of everything that’s happening in our world and knowing that my knowledge doesn’t just stop in a classroom, but can expand beyond that,” she said.

This summer marked the second time Mary Jo Berkstresser, a natural resources management graduate, participated in the Fiji study abroad program. She absorbed so much of the island, the people and the culture that she couldn’t leave it behind. She had to return and experience it all again.

“I didn’t want to go somewhere and just scratch the surface; I wanted to dig deep. I wanted to get to know people. I wanted to fully experience all that the country has to offer,” she said. “This program was the perfect opportunity to not just go to Fiji, but be in Fiji.”

Watts admitted she never wanted to study abroad, until almost all of her friends studied abroad last summer. She developed an urge to try it herself, but it couldn’t be to a typical place.

“This summer has absolutely changed the way that I plan to live my life,” she said. “After having been here, I would not change it for the world and I would do it all over again.”

To learn more about the study abroad programs offered through the College of Human Sciences, go here.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.