Sohinee Bera spent many hours over the past six months sweeping the desert – and that’s not a metaphor.
Bera, a recent Agricultural Sciences Education and Communication (ASEC) graduate, spent the past year working at California’s Joshua Tree National Park as part of the visitor damage mitigation team. The team works to alleviate damage done to the park’s natural resources, and yes, that often includes sweeping up tire tracks when vehicles illicitly stray off road.
The work included a lot more than that, however, from purging rocks from graffiti to recording and tracking instances of prohibited behavior throughout the park.
“It was a great experience because I was able to combine my passion for conservation and interest in human behavior, which is what I wrote my thesis on,” Bera said. “My thesis work was about the sociology of science and what makes people trust or distrust science.”
This thesis topic, as it turned out, intersected neatly with discussions surrounding COVID-19, Bera said, conversations and challenges found even in the deserts of California.
Joshua Tree was a near ideal place to wait out the pandemic, she added, with endless possibilities to be outdoors and a sense of insulation from the outside world.
“I will miss those vast horizons,” she reflected.
But come September Bera is setting off for vastly different horizons in Germany.
Accepted to Fulbright’s English Teaching Assistant Awards, Bera will spend a year in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate (information about which town has not yet come through) working alongside English teachers to improve language teaching and American cultural studies. Bera will also be part of the initiative’s Diversity Program, which places participants in schools with large populations of minority and immigrant students.
“I am Bengali-American so I can really understand and relate to the challenges of immigrants and the nuances of learning English,” Bera said.
In addition to Germany’s large migrant population and need for English teachers, Bera felt drawn to Germany for a more personal reason. When her parents and sister left their home in India and before migrating to America they lived for several years in Germany for her father’s post-doctorate work. As this was before Bera was born the rest of her family speaks fluent German and feels a deep connection to that country that she feels removed from. This and the overwhelmingly positive experience they had there convinced Bera to apply for her Fulbright in Germany.
“I sat down with my mom the other night to talk about Germany and it was incredible to hear her stories,” Bera added. “Her first time in Germany was her first time out of India, her first time on a plane and her first time wearing pants. She told me how they lived in a guest house with families from across the world and it felt like being part of a big family. I hope I find similar opportunities for community.”
Bera said while a Fulbright teaching English may fall a little outside of her ASEC work she will lean heavily on her communication training from the program and hopes to tap into urban agriculture projects while abroad, which are prevalent throughout Germany.
And in the Fall of 2022, Bera will be pulling all her experiences from Purdue to Joshua Tree to Germany together to pursue a Ph.D. at Cornell University where she will work in the Science, Health, Risk, and Environmental Communication lab.
“I really feel like this program is going to give me the opportunity to pull in all my education and experiences over the last several years and all those in the year to come.”
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