Alumni Spotlight: Ben West


Ben is biology major from North Libery, Iowa, but he goes to school at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He's into painting, hiking, canoeing, birdwatching, baking, and playing saxophone.

Why did you pick this program?

Ben: I actually visited Ecuador once before with a high school biology trip and I just had to go back. The avian life (and other life) is incredible, and I'm always looking for good birdwatching opportunities. I was looking for a biology program with a lot of excursions to a lot of places, and SIT fit the bill.

What do you wish someone had told you before you went abroad?

Ben: Don't bring a cheap watch when you're constantly on excursions. Despite supposedly being waterproof and looking reasonably durable, mine broke right before we went to Galapagos, and having a watch would have helped quite a bit with my independent study project at the end of the program, as I was timing lengths of certain bird behaviors.

What is the most important thing you learned abroad?

Ben: I got to experience firsthand the interplay between the desire to conserve nature and the desire to develop as a nation. An example would be petroleum drilling in the Amazon, which is too complicated of an issue to delve into here. I also learned that while a lot of conservation-related science has been done in Ecuador, there are a lot of unknowns and even new species to be discovered.

What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?

Ben: I think people should only go if it makes sense for them. There's a huge distinction between wanting to visit a place and wanting to live there for several months. However, going abroad makes sense if you need a break from your home college or university and/or you would like to experience a new place as a student.

What was the hardest part about going abroad?

Ben: Coming back to my home college was definitely the biggest shock; it's been three weeks and I'm still adjusting. It's hard to go from traveling to a cool place every other week to being stuck in the bubble that is a small college.

What's your favorite story to tell about your time abroad?

Ben: One time in the cloud forest, the food ran out from the hummingbird feeders. I was able to get hummingbirds to land on my hand by making a tube-like shape with my hand. They would try to drink from the tube, so I could feel their little tongues. I had four or five species land on me, but my favorite was a male booted racquettail, which is a tiny hummingbird with fuzzy white feet and a long tail.

What made this experience unique and special?

Ben: This is a difficult question, as there were a lot of factors. Ecuador is gorgeous country and we went to good variety of places within the northern part of the country. Both of our main professors were birdwatchers and well and spent a lot of time with us in the field, so it was fun to trade bird sightings with them while on excursions.

Tell us about an experience you had that you could not have had at home.

Ben: I snorkeled with a manta ray in the Galapagos. You don't get an appreciation for how fast those guys swim until you try to keep up with one!

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Ben: If you'd like to travel within Ecuador, do so on one of your early weekends. I did not do this and regret not doing so.

What made this trip meaningful to you, or how did this trip change your perceptions, future path?

Ben: It was really great to see the southern part of the Western Hemisphere, as there a lot of biological and conservation issues in Ecuador that affect other countries, including the US. For example, we saw North American migrant birds near habitats that were being degraded, making me realize that conservation of a species is sometimes a cross-continental endeavor. I definitely would like to go back to Ecuador and do conservation research. Now that I have a few connections, I feel that is a definite possibility.