Adventure Forward!: VVC Students Explore Panama, Costa Rica

VICTOR VALLEY COLLEGE, Calif.: In just 36 hours, eight Victor Valley College students went from their normal urban environment to having monkeys climbing all over them while aboard a float on the Panama canal.

The students left for a trip to Central America on January 18 and spent 16 days in the countries of Panama and Costa Rica. The expedition, led by VVC biology professor Dr. Hinrich Kaiser, was made possible through the college’s Tropical Research Initiative.

The students traveling were all enrolled in one of VVC’s biology courses, “Comparative Natural History,” and given the opportunity to explore new environments while being exposed to local wildlife and new cultures.

They got a more personal experience with a few animals thanks to a nonprofit animal rescue owned by German Sibaja, called the Mesoamerican Rescue Center. Sibaja allowed the students to help him with animals in his care. They were tasked with weighing a baby three-toed sloth and releasing snakes and an anteater back into the wild.

“It was a bonus to participate in this wildlife preservation,” Kaiser said.

Students were also exposed to a new way of living during their trip.

“We stayed at an indigenous reserve … in a very non-touristy kind of place. We had to walk up for about a half hour from the main roads and through the jungle to get there,” Kaiser said. “There’s no phone signal [and] no power. These things were very unusual for our students. You are not connected.”

On previous trips, Kaiser has led student groups who are responsible for discovering multiple new species of life in foreign countries. While scientific research plays a major role, Kaiser sees other benefits the trips can provide as well.

Two individuals of the poison frog, Oophaga pumilio, from the old cemetery on Solarte Island, Bocas del Toro Archipelago, Panama. The color pattern of these frogs is different on each of the islands of the Bocas del Toro Province. (Photo by Hinrich Kaiser)

“The emphasis here is focused on giving more experiences than the experiences of the research. I’m trying to serve a broader clientele,” he said.

VVC humanities major Heather Macias, who attended the recent trip, can vouch.

“Most students who hear about a trip like this that are in my shoes may be interested, but turned off because they may think taking this class won’t benefit them,” Macias said. “It was intimidating to be the only humanities major, but was also so rewarding. This (trip) may be a good influencer for those non-declared majors as well.”

The group has plans for future trips and how to achieve enough funding to support their goals. Kaiser said he would like to take students to Madagascar next year, which will require additional fundraising.

“(The Associated Student Body) has been a great support for every one of these trips,” Kaiser said, explaining that ASB has traditionally donated $10,000 to the Tropical Research Initiative each year. “That’s very useful for how the students are able to afford this, but one of the challenges is still money.”

Victor Valley College’s Tropical Research Initiative team is shown here on Wizard Beach, Bastimentos Island, Bocas del Toro Archipelago, Panama, after a nature hike. Back row, left to right: Janene Vitro, VVC biology professor Dr. Hinirch Kaiser, Abram Campos, Benjamin Vitro, Heather Macias and José Yáñez. Front row: Miranda Buckley, Ashley Stroup, Ruby Resendez and guide Dr. César Barrio-Amorós. (Photo courtesy of Abram Campos)

He and the students who attended the recent trip are working on producing an 18-month calendar with some of the wildlife photos they took. The calendar will be a gift for those who make financial contributions to the research initiative. Their hope is to raise an additional $10,000 toward the next trip.

According to participants, the experience of the trip is challenging, educational and highly rewarding.

“We (spent) at least 18 hours a day for 16 days together, encountering different attitudes, likes and dislikes, tiredness, hungriness, fears and anxieties,” Macias said. “It was an amazing learning experience. It challenged me to face many fears and discomforts. I experienced and gained an abundant amount of love and knowledge for nature.”

Student José Yáñez passes a tarantula he uncovered under a log within an indigenous rainforest to fellow student Janene Vitro so she can also experience feeling its hairy legs! (Photo by Hinrich Kaiser)

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