Flinders undergrads access New Colombo Plan funded international study opportunities: A Maldives case study.
On a humid November morning I stepped onto Naifaru, a remote island in the Republic of Maldives, with 18 other Flinders University undergraduate students. After travelling 17 hours by plane and three by sea, we were eager to arrive. What followed was a once-in-a-lifetime field trip, our days filled with snorkelling off uninhabited islands, observing field research, participating in seagrasses and plastics surveys, and volunteering at the local turtle rehabilitation and marine research centre. This opportunity was made possible by access to the New Columbo Plan which offers grants to many Flinders students. I took this opportunity to interview the students on their experiences on Naifaru.
Student travel opportunities are often limited by funding. The New Colombo Plan (NCP) was established in 2014 by the Australian Government and supports undergraduate students to study in the Indo-Pacific region (1). Every year, the NCP provides the opportunity for around 10,000 students to study in over 40 countries throughout the region, through internships and short-term or semester mobility grants (2). Flinders University undergraduates can gain academic credit through NCP funded study opportunities, such as our field trip - Discover the Maldives: A Cultural and Educational Experience (3). International learning opportunities are often perceived as inaccessible due to cost, yet research proves that access to field trips and practical research experience is highly beneficial to student learning and post-graduate employment opportunities (4). Without access to NCP funding, many students wouldn’t have been able to participate in this incredible opportunity in the Maldives.
International study opportunities provide students with life-changing, memorable moments.
Our time in the Maldives was filled with moments we will never forget. On one day, we caught a boat to an uninhabited island nearby, jumping from the boat to spend a few hours snorkelling. Later, on dry land, we ate dinner with some Naifaru residents, as one of the local men caught a reef fish and cooked it over a fire to share with us. We gathered around the fire, singing Maldivian songs, learning the Divehi language and sharing laughter. The sky was clear and some of us sat on the shore under the thousands of stars with the warm water lapping at our toes, watching the specs of bioluminescence appear in the water.
There were challenging moments too, like the day we sailed to another nearby island to snorkel. The water was warm, and we were looking forward to exploring the beautiful coral reef. Instead, we were met with devastation. The current was strong enough that we didn’t have to swim, we just floated over a desert of dead coral. It was incredibly powerful to see the impacts of climate change and ocean warming, especially in such vivid contrast with the beautiful reefs that we had so recently visited.
Experiencing the reality of living in a developing island nation can be shocking and eye-opening for Australian students.
The islands of the Maldives are particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change due to their low-lying nature (5). The islands are also impacted by anthropogenic activity including mining of coral reefs, pollution, and limited options for waste disposal6.
During the Maldives field trip, many students found the options for waste management challenging. In Naifaru, a beachside rubbish dump at one end of the island is burned every few days. The light afternoon breeze brought relief from the heat and humidity, but with it came the pervading smell of burning plastic. So much waste is currently produced that there is no effective way to deal with the sheer volume of it. Tourists are also responsible for generating a high volume of waste. We were shocked by the lack of waste management and the real impacts this has on local people. Standing next to a burning pile of plastic over three times my height, I started to understand the gravity of just how much plastic pollution there is in the world and the impact it has on communities and ecosystems.
International field-trips provide students with practical skills and help develop educated, resilient, empathetic graduates with real-world experience.
While there were challenging aspects of the trip, the students I interviewed reported that they learned a range of useful skills, including practical techniques such as field research, snorkelling, marine conservation and remote community logistics. As an unexpected bonus, many students also shared that they discovered a personal resilience they didn’t know they had. We learned to adapt, to work with limited resources, and how small, positive changes can have big impacts. We experienced firsthand the very real threat that climate change poses to entire nations of people, and the generosity and resilience of this community living in a difficult situation.
Many of the students that I interviewed stated that the field trip to the Maldives has shaped their future study and career interests, and all students indicated they would return to the region in the future for work, volunteering, or further study. Everyone who attended acknowledged that international field trips are of vital importance, with one student stating, ‘International placements provide the opportunity for students to apply learned knowledge in unfamiliar environments and therefore expand their capabilities and potential for life after uni.’ International field-trips provide a tangible experience to complement theoretical learning and immersion experiences puts life into perspective and helps broaden our understanding of the world.
Students believe that real-world experiences increase post-graduate employment prospects and improve graduate employability.
Many of the students interviewed identified the value of international field trips when applying for post-graduate employment. While the field trips help you grow personally and academically, they also add value to your CV. Students believe that international field trip experiences in remote regions set you apart from other job applicants, giving you a greater chance of gaining employment in your area.
Taking part in international field trips is a straightforward process and has academic and personal benefits.
The process of applying for an NCP grant is straightforward and supported by the Flinders University academic and administration staff. It’s an incredible opportunity that is currently underutilised, with many projects being advertised repeatedly and often embarking without all student numbers being filled. The grants can cover a large portion of the expense involved and taking part in trips and associated projects contributes towards academic credit. 100% of students interviewed recommend taking part in NCP experiences as part of your undergraduate degree. To find out about the current NCP opportunities available for Flinders students, search for “New Columbo Plan” on the Flinders University website.
1.) Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade 2019, About the New Colombo Plan, viewed 10 January 2019, <https://dfat.gov.au/people-to-people/new-colombo-plan/about/Pages/about.aspx>.
3.) Flinders University n.d., New Colombo Plan (NCP) funded opportunities, viewed 11 January 2019, <http://www.flinders.edu.au/international-students/student-exchange-study-abroad/outbound/costs-and- financial-aid/new-colombo-plan-ncp-funded-opportunities.cfm>.
4.) Healey, M, Jordan, F, Pell, B & Short, C 2010, 'The research–teaching nexus: a case study of students' awareness, experiences and perceptions of research', Innovations in Education and Teaching International, vol. 47, no. 2, pp. 235-46.; Levy, P & Petrulis, R 2012, 'How do first-year university students experience inquiry and research, and what are the implications for the practice of inquiry-based learning?', Studies in Higher Education, vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 85- 101.
5.) Dhunya, A, Huang, Q & Aslam, A 2017, 'Coastal Habitats of Maldives: Status, Trends, Threats, and potential conservation Strategies', International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research, vol. 8, no. 3.; Hirsch, E 2017, 'The unit of resilience: unbeckoned degrowth and the politics of (post) development in Peru and the Maldives', Journal of Political Ecology, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 462-75.; Lasagna, R, Albertelli, G, Colantoni, P, Morri, C & Bianchi, CN 2009, 'Ecological stages of Maldivian reefs after the coral mass mortality of 1998', Facies, vol. 56, no. 1, p. 1.
6.) Dhunya, A, Huang, Q & Aslam, A 2017, 'Coastal Habitats of Maldives: Status, Trends, Threats, and potential conservation Strategies', International Journal of Scientific & Engineering Research, vol. 8, no. 3.; Pernetta, JC 1992, 'Impacts of climate change and sea-level rise on small island states: National and international responses', Global environmental change, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 19-31.