Global Learning: Exploring Puerto Rico and Climate Change through the Lens of Culture

Anna Fairbairn, anthropology and Hispanic studies double major, environmental studies minor 2022

Nominating faculty: Francisco Fernández de Alba

Supporting faculty: Mary Beth Tierney-Tello

Background on the Project

The summer after my freshman year, I took part in a faculty led study away course in Puerto Rico. The course was called Disaster and Reconstruction and examined the processes of resiliency in the wake of natural disaster in conjunction with other social issues. The course was very eye-opening and allowed me to hear from many perspectives on this intersection between humans and the environment in the context of Puerto Rico. 

Two years later, I had the opportunity to take part in a public health research project in the southwest of Puerto Rico, which looked deeper into these themes with a closer focus on the inequities that take place as a result. I spent that year working on the various steps of the process, from survey writing, to analysis, interviews, and eventually traveling back to Puerto Rico for in person qualitative research. Working on this project taught me even more about the island of Puerto Rico and inspired me to inquire further.

As a senior, Hispanic studies major, I chose to combine my interest in Puerto Rico with what I had learned throughout the major. Hispanic studies emphasizes the importance of examining culture alongside language to understand larger issues. Following this model, I looked at different forms of cultural expression, including literature, music, and visual art, to synthesize how climate change is perceived and conceptualized in Puerto Rico. I found through my research that Puerto Rico that all of these modes of cultural expression, reflect a deep love for the island by its people. In the field of environmental justice, Puerto Rico is especially important to think about, as the island is disproportionately impacted by climate change. With a preexisting history of social being motivated by the people, these forms of expression act as the perfect tools. They raise awareness about the issues taking place in a way that reminds people of what is at stake in direct and indirect ways. I also saw how this discourse creates an essential model to continue thinking about the concerns of Puerto Ricans in the context of this global crisis and opens the discourse to move towards a better future.

Global Honors

I used the project as a way to both dig deeper into Hispanic studies through the lens of my interests, and as an opportunity to reflect on what I have learned overall during Wheaton. Looking back upon the relationship between Puerto Rico and the rapidly changing planet, allowed me to think more about the role of culture overall in expressing how we make meaning of the world. 

I’ve been able to then reflect further upon this theme with the implementation of Wheaton College’s new Global Honors’ track. This program has been introduced to help students add a more focused element of global learning to their education. It’s encouraged by a variety of particular courses, study abroad opportunities, and a reflection component. While the Hispanic studies major already set me on a global learning approach, this program has helped me to think about it in a more cohesive way and pushed me further to inquire more. 

Reflecting back upon my first year course in Puerto Rico has inspired a lot of my learning to this day, from classes I have taken on campus, projects I pursued, internships, up to today as I finish my final year of Wheaton College studying abroad in Andalusia, Spain at the University of Cádiz. I think a younger version of myself never would have done this. Despite always wanting to learn Spanish and challenge myself in the way that study abroad is known to, the prospect of not being on campus for my final semester probably would not have been exciting. However, I think that the experiences leading into this project as well as the Global Honors’ track pushed me in a way that made me eager and excited to seize this opportunity. The kind of learning that has taken place during my time abroad has been so unique. It has brought experiential learning to a new level for me by pushing me far beyond my comfort one into new territory, and I am proud and grateful for what I have learned. More than just improving my Spanish, this has given me the opportunity to think deeper about the issues of the world, understand more about how we view and interpret what exists around us, and reflect more upon my own life experiences to better envision my future.

Future considerations  

I hope that both the work of this project and the global honors program can allow me to make important connections to my future careers in the professional world. Learning about how inequities play out and being able to synthesize through analysis of cultural expressions are important ways of thinking that I would not have necessarily considered without the work of this research. I believe that these are skills I will carry with me wherever I end up and will better equip me for the world ahead. It is my hope that future students too are able to not only take part in projects and programs like this, but are able to embark on them in a way in which they can fully reflect back upon the importance of their learning and expand their views of the world as well.