To realize your passion, go into the field


Levko crouches on top of a "Beartooth Pass Summit" sign surrounded by snow this summer. (Photo courtesy of Levko Karmazyn)

By Levko Karmazyn | For The Pitt News

As I watched the sun fall behind the mountain peaks surrounding the K BAR Z Guest Ranch in early July, the valley below was an uncharacteristic shade of blue, unlike the past few nights. Something else felt different, too — it was the last night of Pitt’s Yellowstone Field Study.

I already knew I would remember it as one of the most important experiences of my life and undoubtedly the most important class I would take at Pitt. It’s the type of adventure we all need more of to help us realize our passions, and an undertaking that needs to become a staple of college curricula for all students.

The class description was simple enough. We would travel to Yellowstone, stay at a ranch, hike throughout the Absaroka Mountains while studying equal portions geology, ecology and policy.

Several animals gather in the mountain’s rocky terrain. (Photo courtesy of Levko Karmazyn)

In Wyoming, the coursework reached beyond the topics at hand. Studied in the context of the western landscape, these topics revealed insights more profound than if read from a textbook. The course prompted me to see this country, its people and even my personal journey in a whole new way.

My standard class lectures in environmental studies can be fascinating, engaging and challenging — but there are times when I feel like I’m missing out on a deeper connection to the topics at hand. The classroom sometimes feels distant from the world at large.

Learning about the Permian extinction while touching the exposed, discolored layers in sedimentary rock at the exact point where it happened stretches the ability of your mind to comprehend time. Learning about preserving bison populations with one in front of you, all 1400 pounds of one, changes the feeling from pity to awesome respect.

My biology professor, Carlos Martinez del Rio — from the University of Wyoming — captured my fascination with trail-side, hands-on explanations of mutualisms, keystone species and plant sex. Though important, traditional classes often teach us the theory behind things while missing the real-life, tangible context that drives us to deeper understanding.

As an environmental studies major I am expected to intern with local businesses, government agencies or nonprofit organizations — jobs that don’t always put you in direct contact with the outdoors. This field course was perfect as it brought me back to being that kid in love with the woods and helped me retreat from the race to begin a career that can dominate the college mentality.

Those, like me, who have been slow to settle into a career path need to be inspired more than anything. We need to be awoken to the possibilities that can define our lives should we choose to access them.

Future nurses need to remember they are more than just pre-health students in hospitals — they are catalysts of life. Accounting majors aren’t just doing paperwork — they quantify a dynamic, living economy into comprehensible numbers.

When I first arrived in Wyoming, I was shaken by the vast alien openness of the western landscape. Once I returned home I felt claustrophobic in suburban D.C., but strangely re-centered and focused. I kept an outsider’s perspective, and found awe and wonder in the novel ecosystems of local parks or small streams I hadn’t felt for a long time.

It felt like going to the moon to take an astronomy class and then realizing you could see the stars from your backyard all along. It was truly a spiritual recharging — and I have never described a class in that way until now.

I experienced another curious side effect.  Away from LTE service or a reliable Wi-Fi connection, I rapidly detached from my usual media, and therefore some of my other usual thinking patterns. It was often just me, Yellowstone and my video camera, taking footage just to prove the grandeur of the park. This exposed me to points of view that city-residing college students usually aren’t privy to.

Take, for example, how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone wasn’t all positive — it almost eradicated the hunting business of the ranch we stayed at. It is easy to tout their reintroduction as a victory from afar, however, living with wolves is difficult, and those who have been living on the land for years need to have their voices heard.

Playing bait and switch with locals with conservation being the only objective without regard to the local economy is dishonest. Successful conservation requires mutual trust from all parties, national and local.

Living in Wyoming can be paradise, but it is also a fringe way of life that requires a lot of sacrifices. I really began to understand this when I came face to face with the Wyomingites. This sort of understanding of the complexities of human life wherever they are is an attribute I think is necessary in order to conquer any of the immense current issues we face.

This sense of empathy will stay with me more than anything else from this trip. Like the bubbling, boiling water in the numerous hot springs of Yellowstone, empathy rises from deep inside us, the causation being the places and people you encounter on your journey through life. I really hope that classes like this one will become an integral part to the college curriculum, as I know I will always remember it as one of the most important events in my academic life.

Several field course students stand atop a mountain in Wyoming. (Photo courtesy of Levko Karmazyn)

We talked a lot on the trip about the “myth” of the west, the stories and images we hold of that land in our minds that do not align, or leave out, important parts of the reality. But the mythical aura of the place is real. It is the American soul land, a sort of mecca for people who are committed to learning about the natural world and our interactions with it. What are the meccas for other fields of study?

It is of the utmost important that our students find themselves at this personal mecca at one point or another. It is not extracurricular, it’s essential.

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