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An Encounters with Canada Alumnus took a life lesson in the world’s greatest classroom
EWC Alumnus Leah Pengelly, who attended the Ecology and Environment theme week in April 2008, took part in an experience that vey few Canadians or even citizens of the world will ever experience.
When 16, Leah was selected to take part in a unique educational expedition to the Arctic called "Students on Ice" in August 2008. The Students on Ice program provides youth from across Canada and around the world with ship-based educational adventures to the Arctic and Antarctica. The Arctic expedition 2008, on which Leah embarked, represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for young people to expand their knowledge about the circumpolar world, and to gain a new global perspective of our planet, its wonders and its present and future challenges.
Since Leah returning from her Arctic expedition, this high school student from Canmore Alberta and EWC alumnus, has been completely transformed. Encounters with Canada was interested in knowing Leah's story about her fabulous adventure at the top of the world. Leah kindly agreed to answer our questions.
EWC - How many students participated in Students on Ice?
Leah - There were 66 students on the expedition.
EWC - Where were they from?
Leah - All across Canada (BC, AB, ON, QC, NS, Nunavut, Nunavik, NWT, YK), the US including Alaska, and also Mexico, Norway, Austria, Afghanistan, Monaco and France.
EWC - What ages were the students?
Leah - The youngest student participant was 13; the oldest was 24.
EWC - What were the criteria to be accepted in this program?
Leah - Young people with a strong interest in the environment, a passion for learning, leadership qualities and/or potential to develop these qualities, involvement in community, commitment to sharing experiences with their communities post-expedition and a willness to engage in all aspects of the expedition education program.
EWC - What activities did you do? Where did you have your meals; where did you sleep?
Leah - We participated in many activities throughout the expedition, including environmental experiments, labs, attended lectures about the environment and what we were seeing on the expeditions, workshops of our choice, which included art, media, photography, Inuit games and learning to speak Inutituk, birds and botany, archeology and plankton studies. We also had many zodiac cruises to see wildlife at closer proximity and did some day hikes to spectacular areas where we saw glaciers and climbed some incredible mountain peaks. On our landings, we usually visited old whaling sites and also visited one very isolated Inuit community. We ate and slept on a large ship, which was equipped with a computer room, library, dining room and lots of space on deck.
EWC - What were the biggest highlights you experienced during this trip?
Leah - One of my favourite days was in Isabella Bay, where we were surrounded by hundreds of bowhead whales. They came very close to the zodiacs and remained close to the surface so we could observe them. The sound of their breathing was incredible; it was as if the entire world was doing yoga breaths. We then took the zodiacs along the beach and spotted a young polar bear, and observed it passing us very close by. After such an incredible experience in Isabella Bay, we were disappointed to hear it wasn't protected. With the help of many students, including those from past expeditions, we were ecstatic to learn that the Government of Canada protected this area on August 22, 2008.
EWC - What were the differences/similarities of the trip compared to your everyday life?
Leah - The trip was extremely different than my everyday life. Growing up in a part of Canada with lots of wilderness, I thought I knew a lot about the environment. Going to the Arctic heightened my knowledge about the environment, Canada and the Arctic. It was the best classroom in the world! To be standing on a glacier with glaciologists from around the world opened my eyes to the wonder I was looking at. Small things that I took for granted soon become the focus of attention. With so many passionate individuals teaching us about their area of science, it really made me want to learn more about this part of Canada. Watching other participants experience glaciers and wilderness for the first time was also highly rewarding. There was one girl on our trip from Mexico, who had never seen snow before. Something as simple as a snowball fight became a life memory for her. Even being on a ship for that long, 13 days, was a first for most of the students. The amount of culture we saw, and knowledge that was absorbed would take months in school. It was hands-on learning all the time! The trip was so different than my everyday life, that the transition coming home was almost bittersweet. I realized how noisy our civilization is and how much we rely on technology. In the north, we had no phones, no television, no traffic and no disruptions from technology.
EWC - What did you learn in particular? How different are you today after this trip?
Leah - I have learned so much from this trip about climate change, how important sea ice is and how fast we are losing it. I met Inuit people, who are in danger of losing a lot of their culture and traditional activities due to global warming. I have also gained the knowledge of how to spread my message through the media, in my community and in my country. I now have the ability to make my opinion known and make a difference. I have been deeply affected by this trip. Everything I do I think about on a large scale. I am constantly thinking about how to limit my impact on the environment. I am advocating change with my family, and friends and hope this will spread.
EWC - What is the central message you would give to Canadian youth, who can't take such a trip?
Leah - No matter how small an action it may be, it will make a difference and inspire others to make the same change. Climate change is a global problem and requires a global solution. We need to change the way we think about our planet, and it is up to our generation to make that change. Another thing I have learned is that you are never alone in the fight against climate change. There are so many active people working towards finding a solution and tons of networks to help you make your personal changes grow.