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CCU Atheneum: CCU student Kyle St. Clair and professor Carolyn Dillian examine an artifact in Kenya.
CCU student Kyle St. Clair and professor Carolyn Dillian examine an artifact in Kenya.

CCU students 'tough it out' for a unique study abroad trip to Kenya

by Brian Druckenmiller
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Coastal Carolina University students are encouraged to take advantage of a wide variety of study abroad opportunities in several degree programs. But how many of these programs involve learning to survive without showers or clean drinking water and with limited food; sleeping in the dirt for six weeks and making do when torrential downpours flood the area; working outside in triple-digit temperatures without a nearby air conditioner for a quick break; or, perhaps most terrifying for the modern college student, going without an outlet or USB port to charge a smartphone and update a crucial Facebook status. This past summer, however, two CCU students experienced this first-hand.

Carolyn Dillian, assistant professor of history and a veteran archaeologist, has worked with the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya since 2006. The Field School is an international program that invites students to Kenya for an intensive six-week long excavation of Koobi Fora, a secluded area in Africa known as a premier excavation site for artifacts and fossils of early hominids— bipedal primates that represent a stage in the human evolutionary tree. In previous years, she has brought students from the other universities where she has taught, and she was excited to extend this opportunity to CCU students.

“It’s unique for students to participate in authentic and active research,” said Dillian. “They get to work with leading scholars from around the world and have their findings published in leading academic journals. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Dillian and her two students, Kyle St. Clair and Allison Varriale, departed from Myrtle Beach International Airport on June 12, spending the first two days and nights in the comfort of a Kenya hotel and attending lectures at the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi. On June 15, however, the REAL adventure began as they headed to Koobi Fora. Hotels were replaced by tents; proper hygiene was no longer an option; and students were lucky to have even a small supply of clean drinking water.

“The lack of communication with the outside world was rough,” said St. Clair, a senior marine science major with a minor in coastal geology and anthropology. “It makes you appreciate what you have here—what most of us take for granted every day.”

The group focused on three main areas in archaeological and paleoanthropological research: the transition to food production as prehistoric people began using domesticated animals, the development of controlled fire, and an extensive look at hominid footprints that date to 1.5 million years ago. In addition to the excavation and field work, students were exposed to the incredible wildlife of the area and also took time to visit the local tribes: the Dassanetch, Turkana and Gabbra. For these interactions, students, accompanied by interpreters, asked questions about the local culture, and also told the locals about their own.

“The local people are living a traditional way of life,” said Dillian, “a nomadic, herding lifestyle similar to that of people thousands of years ago. It was an interesting cultural exchange from both perspectives; our students learned about the tribes’ ways of life, while the native people asked questions about us, such as why the women in our group weren’t married yet.”

According to Dillian, the two biggest challenges for CCU students were the living conditions and, perhaps surprising to some, the academic rigor. Currently, anthropology is restricted to a minor at CCU, and these two students were working alongside students from some of the top anthropology programs in the world, including universities in Russia, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Chile, South Africa, and prominent programs in the United States. Considering this, Dillian was impressed by St. Clair and Varriale.

“They were really tough,” said Dillian. “They certainly held their own academically. Also, [the conditions] will break anybody, but they toughed it out and did not complain. They embraced the experience, and I’m very proud of them.”

The group returned to Myrtle Beach in late July. They have remained quiet about their findings as the information will be published in academic journals in the near future; the CCU community will have to wait until then to learn what the group actually found out.

Dillian is working to finalize a partnership between CCU and the Koobi Fora Field School to make the program more financially accessible for students. While she will continue to take interested students to Kenya in Summer 2013, she mentioned other field schools that CCU offers, including local ones at Waties Island and the Yawkey Wildlife Preserve in Georgetown. Whether students learn locally or explore Africa, hands-on field work is where the REAL learning takes place for CCU’s future anthropologists.

“I’m thrilled to be a part of these programs,” said Dillian. “We are trying to build more interest and develop these programs to get more students involved. I hope more students take advantage of the anthropology courses and field opportunities we offer at CCU.”

For more information about future Field School opportunities, Dillian encourages students to email her at cdillian@coastal.edu.

 

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