Memoirs of a CScIence student’s semester on the Outer Banks

By on December 13, 2018

Lynn prepares a sample for testing.

Lynn Tran, a senior at the University of North Carolina, was an intern with The Outer Banks Voice while attending classes at the Coastal Studies Institute Outer Banks Field Site in Skyco.

By Lynn Tran

Nestled on 200 acres of coastal wetlands and ecosystems on the edge of Roanoke Island near Skyco, the Coastal Studies Institute  includes students from East Carolina University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and N.C. State in a partnership that covers a variety of majors and allows combined research and educational opportunities, while addressing major topics and issues for communities in eastern North Carolina.

How does this multi-institutional establishment fit into the dynamic of the Outer Banks community? For that matter, how do students at the Institute fit in?

As a student from UNC Chapel Hill studying for the semester at the Outer Banks Field Site, and fully embracing the experience, I felt compelled to investigate and share this unique, student-driven perspective with the community.

With this quest in mind, I ventured through the semester as both a participant and observer; both a part of the field site at the Institute and apart from it.

The team relaxing, complete with facials, at the Friends of the Elizabeth II housing complex, their home for the semester.

As the two weeks of orientation for the field site wound down, we soon realized that this sleek, immersive institution hosting our educational experiences actually involved so much more than a plethora of resources for students like us.

Its structure fostered a community group dedicated to understanding and contributing to the progress of its own surrounding community.

Dr. Reid Corbett, the director of CSI, said that students are critical to the institute’s mission and growth.

“We are here for research and education; that’s the bulk of what our mission is,” Corbett said.

“You can think of education pretty broadly; whether it’s at the undergraduate, graduate, or K-12 — for that matter, you can think of community education,” said Corbett.

“So the fact is that we’re here for the students, and we incorporate students into almost everything we do — whether it’s our own grant-funded research or the courses that we’ve developed,” Corbett said.

Sam and Lynn

About Lynn Tran
Along with writing this feature on CSI, Lynn has been shadowing Sam Walker during the past several months as an intern, including working as camera operator during a live shot on The Weather Channel, covering Dare County commissioners meetings, and sitting in on the Beach 104 morning show.

She will graduate this spring with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Carolina in environmental studies, with a concentration in environmental behavior and decision making, and a minor in music.

While born in Seattle and growing up in Durham, Lynn plans to make her way back to the Evergreen State after graduation. Her passions include all forms of artistic and creative expression, penguins and other animals, all things purple, journaling, and wacky puns.

She is exploring her career options, but hopes to work in environmental and science communication (maybe environmental journalism?), with penguins, connecting with people and creating art — or all of the above.

Corbett noted that CSI ‘students’ include a wide variety within the community.

“That’s one thing that I think is important — we are trying to engage students from the k-12 all the way to that continuing education that you might see, or (even) through (retired) communities.“

Corbett said that the institute offers students a unique, interdisciplinary experience that merges the social sciences and natural sciences in order to gain insight into a variety of perspectives that all impact and contribute to coastal dynamics in differing ways.

Corbett said that bringing students into the environment as their ‘classroom’ is a unique opportunity for them to immerse themselves in what they learn about the coastal sciences.

In our group of thirteen passionate Environment and Ecology majors, we certainly have embraced [these] chances to immerse ourselves. It didn’t hurt that we got to do so in such an incredibly organically inspiring setting.

“First off, the building is just absolutely breathtaking . . . every single time we pull in there, I’m absolutely awestruck at the fact that I get to take classes in such a beautiful building that’s LEED certified and has such a welcoming classroom environment,” said Elizabeth Kendrick, a junior from Atlanta, Ga., who is double-majoring in Environmental Studies and Public Policy.

“I know that I’ve already learned so much already, that every day I’m gonna learn something that I didn’t know before, and I definitely love that aspect about the field site,” said Kendrick.

Starting out at the field site, many of us were unsure of exactly what to expect, but we each had our aspirations and motivations for deciding to spend this semester ‘abroad’ here in the Outer Banks.

Harris Kopp, a junior Environmental Science major from Dallas, Texas, said the Outer Banks Field Site was the college experience he had been looking for.

“This is exactly what I was hoping my college experience would be — a lot more laid back and more familiar with people that I’m comfortable around — in a space that’s kinda like a dorm, but not really,” Kopp said. “This is a lot nicer than a dorm. And then just where we have the freedom to go do whatever we want, pretty much.”

Katherine Bell collecting a surface sample at Seaside Art Gallery.

Danesha Byron, a senior first generation college student from Fayetteville with an Environmental Science major and Anthropology minor, said she was also looking for new experiences.

“Having not traveled much, I almost feel like I have a sheltered perception of what I can do; so many experiences that I just need to see for myself and feel to know that possibilities/opportunities are endless,” Byron said.

Having no car, Byron was nervous about having to depend on others for transportation in an unfamiliar place all semester, but soon came to appreciate her accommodating peers and colleagues who helped her gain confidence in her own capabilities and embrace opportunities.

“It took a whole community for me to have that type of support,” said Byron.

Even among just the thirteen of us at the field site, we have already formed strong bonds and a diverse support system. I often still marvel at the serendipity of how well our group dynamics have turned out.

Jenn Allen, a junior from Shelby majoring in Environmental Studies with a Geography minor, said she was surprised by how quickly the group bonded.

“Thirteen is a number where it can be either really cliquey or it can mesh really well, and I’m really glad that we all mesh really well,” Allen said.

Allen said she most appreciated the unique friendships and connections she has made through the field site.

“Even though we’re all pretty much in the same major, it’s different when you’re in small classes with these people all the time; so, the friendships, definitely, I don’t think would’ve been possible without CSI and also just being able to meet Lindsay, Linda, and Andy — they’re as good of professors as I could’ve asked for and being able to get really close with them wouldn’t have been possible at UNC,” Allen said.

“That’s really the biggest surprise; the depth of personal connection down here, I wasn’t expecting it,” said Kopp, reminiscing on his time at the field site.

The team preps to inspect a failed septic system.

“I never really imagined myself being in the position I am right now, where it’s like we’re just one crew,” Kopp said. “I do appreciate CSI as an institute for giving us the opportunity to bond like that… and at the same time, for giving us the opportunity (to do lab work).”

Kopp added that he has had many new experiences in the relatively short time he has spent here.

“I don’t feel like the same person at all as I was when I came down.”

Many other students also feel a growing sense of attachment and appreciation for place that seems to define and drive the character of local communities that we have gotten the chance to interact with for the past several months.

“I like that, especially after spending 3-4 years at a school as big as UNC, that this provides small, cohort-based learning experience that really lets me get to know my classmates and instructors instead of being a face in the crowd,” said Emma Szczesiul, a senior Environmental Science major from Smithfield.

“Even though we’ve only been here almost (three) months, I feel like this community (already) means something to me and I can see why it’s a special place to a lot of people,” Szczesiul said. “It feels like home.”

Indeed, many of us feel like we have a home in the Outer Banks that is already being missed as we continue into the last month of our shared semester here.

In no small part, we have the Outer Banks Field Site and Coastal Studies Institute to thank for providing this experience, and so much more.

“It’s actually so amazing, it doesn’t get enough credit,” Allen mused.

“It is very immersive, I feel, that by the end of this…maybe then we can say we’re locals,” Marium Konsouh, a junior Environmental Science major from Charlotte. “We’ll check back.”

For two of my peers, the Outer Banks Field Site is not their first experience at a field site. Intrigued by their histories at other locations, I asked how they compared to our experiences here.

Alex Kellogg, a senior double majoring in Environmental Studies and Anthropology from Orlando, Fla., attended the UNC Highlands Field Site in Fall 2016.

Since his time at UNC, he has lived in the Piedmont and mountains, and he said he is excited to live on the coast for the first time. Kellogg also expressed his excitement for the usefulness of our Capstone research this semester.

“I think it’s cool that we’re not only here to exercise doing science, but we’re producing a product for a local town government that can be used for policy; that’s really cool,” he said.

“I’ve never really done something that has been super applicable and has immediate tangible benefits like what we’re doing here, so that’s exciting.”

When asked to compare our field site with the Highlands, Kellogg said that he appreciates the guidance and salient effort to combine logical and human aspects in our work.

The team visits Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Beyond that, he noted the distinct history and culture of the Outer Banks itself.

“I think it’s very interesting; the drama of a sleepy fishing village with lots of history … you know, like a little romantic lighthouse town, being inundated with rapid development and tourism,” said Kellogg as he described how he has experienced the Outer Banks.

“It’s interesting to see places where that old culture exists; seeing how people interact and deal with that reality…how the past gets re-packaged for the purpose of selling it to people (vacationing) here; and what the consequences of that are.”

This experience has enabled opportunity and growth, for field site veterans as well as the rest of us.

Emma Karlok, a senior Environmental Studies major with minors in Marine Sciences and Social and Economic Justice from Jamestown, N.C., attended the UNC Galapagos Field Site in Spring 2017.

When asked to compare our field site with the Galapagos, Karlok emphasized her appreciation for the sense of place and community she has experienced here in the Outer Banks.

“I feel more involved in this community doing what we’re doing here than I did in the community in the Galapagos; because we were kind of visitors there for a couple of weeks,” said Karlok. “Granted, we’re visitors here too, but we’re still state residents.”

Karlok joked that, “([It’s) up to the locals to decide if they can crown us locals.”

Overall, Karlok said that the field sites have been transformative to her time at UNC.

Past Outer Banks Field Site students also shared testimonials of how their field site experiences impacted their overall academic careers.

Hadley Twiddy, a graduate from the very first Outer Banks Field Site in 2002, originally decided to attend because she actually grew up in Manteo and was feeling homesick at UNC.

She said that it finally felt more like the educational experience she was hoping for, and having the smaller classes gave her the chance to bond with her classmates and professors and see her hometown in a new light.

"Honestly, it may sound like overkill, but it really saved my UNC experience,” Twiddy said. "After coming back to UNC, it just made it seem like a much smaller community. Much less overwhelming.”

"I felt a little bit like I was cheating because I was going home, and I probably should’ve been trying to go somewhere where I wasn’t as familiar, but the thing that surprised me so much was that I came home and still learned so much about a place where I lived my whole life,” Twiddy remarked. "That, for me, was really interesting to see that if you grew up in a place it certainly doesn’t mean you know it as well as you think you will.”

For Twiddy, the field site broadened her sense of place towards community growth and connection.

"(It) gave me an appreciation for a place that I thought I knew. For me, it was a very much almost like a continuing education thing, saying, ‘hey, there’s always something more to know, there’s always somebody who you can reach out to and network with,” she said.

"There’s always something new to learn. That makes something that you feel like is pretty flat, makes it pretty dynamic.”

The legacy of the Outer Banks Field Site has carried on through the years.

Mark Stancill, a graduate from last year’s Field Site group who was also briefly employed by the Coastal Studies Institute as a lab assistant, said that he and many other students felt the field site was one of the best decisions that they made in college.

"Myself and a few other people — after this last year’s field site, we came back and we were just telling everyone that we knew that even mentioned it or didn’t even mention it like, ‘hey, you should check this out; like it was super awesome, you should do it,’” Stancill said.

Corbett, the CSI director, mentioned that as a multi-institutional campus, the Coastal Studies Institute also provides educational opportunities for students beyond UNC Chapel Hill undergraduates, from before college through continuing education.

The team learned about the tradition of net fishing, including how to mend a net.

Because East Carolina University essentially leads and runs CSI, many of the students and groups that use the facilities other than the Outer Banks Field Site are often from, or sponsored by, ECU.

Natasha Biarrieta, an ECU graduate student studying Geology, said she appreciates the facility for its resources and capacity to conduct coastal studies.

"It’s definitely reinforced the fact that what I’m doing, what I’m studying, that I definitely want to be in some sort of environmental field,” Biarrieta said.

Biarrieta said that she really enjoys field work and appreciates the broader perspective it brings.

"It’s kind of easy to get caught up in the small picture, exactly what you’re working on. You’re thinking, ‘okay, I’m trying to find [grain size].’ Then that’s all you think about,” said Biarrieta. “But when you go out in the field and you see everything, it reminds you of the bigger picture. That it’s not just, ‘I’m looking at [grain size].’ T[grain size]eason behind the work that we’re doing.”

For Barrieta, her experience at the institute has reinforced her passion for her field, and she encouraged students interested in any of the many educational opportunities offered at the institute to visit and potentially also discover or reinforce their career aspirations.

“Any students that are here, like [all of you], and [all of you]aduate students that are currently working at CSI; the ultimate goal is to use any experience, all of the experiences that we have here, to get a job. Get a job doing something that matters to us. I think being here just reinforces that I’m happy in the field that I’m in. In a way, it sort of stinks because it sets the bar pretty high for my future employment.”

“CSI is so amazing. Not only is it beautiful, all the people are so great, so helpful. All the work that we’re doing, I find, is very interesting.”

The team presented their findings before a standing-room only crowd on Dec. 13.

Moving forward, Corbett said he wants the institute to focus on growth.

“What’s interesting is I think the community is very interested in seeing growth at CSI. They want to see more of a young, educated community out here,” said Corbett.

“And I’m not saying that suggesting that we don’t have any educated people out here — but they’re looking for kind of growth, because it does bring a different culture to the community as well, and it sort of deepens the culture in the community.”

Corbett said the community appreciates that the institute focuses on having scientists and students investigate community-based topics.

“I’m always amazed at how welcoming the community can be when it comes to the science that we’re trying to provide. They’re like sponges; they want the information,” Corbett said.

“This is not a group that is sticking their head in the sand; this is a group that wants to make decisions based on the best available information,” Corbett said. “So, we want to be able to provide that, and I think these courses are a great way to force students to see what a community is like; how a community governs, how a community can take information, can take the science and incorporate that into policy.”

“(You) see all this incredible, heightened drama at the federal level, but it’s amazing how much gets done at the local level,” Corbett said. “And it’s the work that we’re doing, it’s the work that your group is doing, that can really make a difference at the community level. They’ll make decisions based on the information that you can provide.”

“So I think saying that, it’s like watching the sausage get made sort of thing,” Corbett said.

“I think it’s important to see; I think you have a bit more faith in the system when you actually see it work. So our partnerships with the community at the local level here I think is great for exploiting, in the best possible way,” Corbett said.

“So having our students interact with these people, and being able to go to a County Commissioners Meeting to see how it’s running, and see how some of the science that we might be doing might be incorporated into some of (these things).”

Corbett said both the community and student population benefit from their interactions that show how science can actively improve a community.

“As we move forward — I’m focused on building a spring program — it’ll also use the field school model as a skeleton for how we might build another program, because I think it works well. Clearly it works well because it’s been going on for so long.”

For more information about the Coastal Studies Institute and the Outer Banks Field Site, visit: http://outerbanks.web.unc.edu/. There, you can find student biographies, weekly blog posts, and more information so you can get to know more about us and what we do!

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Thinking About the Future

Excellent article. Both these students and Roanoke Island benefit so much from this program at the Coastal Studies Institute. Wish I’d had the opportunity to attend this program way back when. We’re incredibly fortunate to have this resource, right here.