Into the Wild


Observing African Wildlife Solo Launches an Academic Career

When many college students study abroad, they visit Paris or London or Bangkok, studying in classrooms and offices. Cathy Collins pitched a tent in a desert in Botswana, Africa, and spent four months observing wildlife, completely alone.

Today, even she laughs a bit about the very idea of it.

"To this day, I can't believe they let me do it," she says. "A 20-year-old girl alone with the lions and snakes."

Now a professor of conservation biology at Colby College, Collins visited Botswana during her sophomore year at Pitzer College, Los Angeles, through a structured program. When she returned to the United States, she couldn't let the African country go.

"I really wanted to come up with a way to go back to Africa to pursue scientific research," she says. "Research had been one of the most rewarding aspects of my study abroad experience, and so I proposed to the school that I go back there for my senior honors thesis."

She'd work with a private language program for one month, and then spend four months out in the desert with the animals.

The school required her to find her own adviser, and she did, contacting a British expat at the University of Botswana who went along with her plan. After that, she dove into the lengthy and complicated permits process, only to find it wasn't nearly as cut-and-dry as her 20-year-old self anticipated.

"I didn't get the permits in time, and had to postpone my plans for a semester," she says. "That changed the whole course of my college career—I couldn't afford to stay at Pitzer for the extra semester, so I went home and volunteered at a museum of natural history and took a course at the University of Colorado."

By December 1994, Collins was still missing one permit. Taking a leap of faith, she decided to head to Africa anyway, in January 1995 having cobbled together a tent, water drums, and a donated Land Rover from a local conservation society.

"This was before e-mail or cell phones," she says. "I was definitely on my own. I'd call my parents when I got back to the city every two weeks. I'd occasionally see tourists, and I had a friend in the Peace Corps about an hour away. But I enjoyed the challenge of it."

She learned a lot, she says, about herself, the country, and her purpose in life.

"It sealed my love for research," she says. "It gave me the confidence to move forward with independent research in ways I don't think would have otherwise happened … It definitely shaped who I am. It's hard to say how much of that is the scientific and cultural parts, and how much was just spending four months alone. I wrote prolifically in a journal, which is now one of my most prized possessions. It's a beautiful, inspiring place, and connected for me the nature and the power of a place that I'm studying."

Cathy Collins is now assistant professor of biology at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

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This is an abridged excerpt of the article “Designing Destiny” by Kim Fernandez that appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of International Educator.