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Q and A: Jonathan Walz, Academic Director
April 19th, 2017 | SIT Study Abroad
Jonathan “Richard” Walz became academic director of SIT Tanzania-Zanzibar last fall. We recently caught up with him to find out more about his work and program.
What drew you to the job of academic director?
The opportunity to work with students in Tanzania drew me to this job. I am passionate about teaching, experiential learning, and student research. The Tanzania-Zanzibar program integrates these aspects. Based on feedback, the program is fulfilling to students in so many ways. It is also fulfilling to me. Many of the ecological issues addressed in this program are pressing to Africans but also to all communities in a changing world. I do this job because I love it!
What’s your background?
I earned a PhD in anthropology and am a research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. My PhD research was in coastal Tanzania. I speak fluent Swahili. I also hold a degree in African studies. I spent more than five years in Tanzania before joining SIT, including two years as a student at the University of Dar es Salaam. My focus is the human-environment interface in East Africa. Previously, I taught undergraduates at two US institutions, including three years in the Interdisciplinary Honors Program at the University of Florida. Following my first degree, I also worked in resource management in the US.
What makes the Tanzania program unique?
Simply put, Tanzania is an amazing country and Zanzibar is a unique place with welcoming people and compelling issues that relate to our program. As regards our theme, coastal ecology and natural resource management, Zanzibar has a wide array of environments and plants and animals. The Zanzibar Archipelago has remarkable coral reefs as well as sea grass beds, mangrove forests, and remnant coastal forests. Many of these niches and their species are under threat.
In our program, we learn how to evaluate these ecosystems and address issues like climate change, invasive species, and alternative energy sources. We also engage topics like eco-tourism and parks conservation and management. All of this we do in a safe and supportive African context while learning Kiswahili language and the cultural practices of coastal people, from their faith to their boat-building traditions and family stories.
What parts of your program do students most enjoy?
Students most enjoy their homestay experiences, excursions outside of Zanzibar (Unguja) Island, and the field methods aspects. Urban homestays are with Zanzibari families in Stone Town, a World Heritage Site with unique architecture and a cosmopolitan history. The families are warm and welcoming, and they help students learn about Kiswahili language and culture. On Pemba Island, students stay with rural families for one week and especially enjoy cooking activities and traditional music.
The program has lots of excursions within Unguja, but also extended trips to Pemba Island, Mafia Island, and Dar es Salaam (on the mainland coast). These excursions include snorkeling with whale sharks—the world's largest fish, and completely harmless—and sea turtles, surveying forests for threatened monkey species, and working with national parks and reserves to measure the health of coastal forests. Students learn marine science methods and develop reef conservation plans. Experts with PhDs and local expertise train students. The SIT group also employs terrestrial ecological methods to survey animals and animal behaviors. Lastly, students work with NGOs on social sciences techniques and research methods within coastal fishing communities on Unguja.
The program has a friendly, helpful, and experienced staff. In the end, our students gain valuable academic and life experience while having fun (lots of it!) as they snorkel reefs, walk forests (including night walks to see nocturnal animals), and meet coastal residents.
What kind of student is a good fit for the program?
A range of students flourish in the Tanzania-Zanzibar program. Students should be prepared to learn, enjoy coral reefs and coastal forests, and be positive. Students should be adaptable and eager to participate in activities like swimming among fish, working with local seaweed farmers, and developing solutions to pressing ecological problems. Mostly, students should be open-minded and ready to engage a wealth of topics, methods, and experiences related to coastal ecology and natural resource management in East Africa. The program has new academic content and engaging experiences throughout the sunny archipelago.
Why participate in the Tanzania-Zanzibar program?
Perhaps the greatest asset of the program is that students gain real-world perspectives on the complexities of issues that, in a normal classroom, are overly simplified. Students learn this firsthand. Beyond the academic experience, students also learn about Africans and Africa. This experience challenges preconceived notions American students often have about the continent and its people. Living with homestay families, interacting with African experts, and visiting multiple places, urban and rural, develops a well-rounded view of Tanzania and Zanzibar. This familiarity inevitably motivates introspection in students.
The Tanzania-Zanzibar program staff work hard to facilitate remarkable Independent Study Projects for students. In this program, students learn and apply skill sets to real-world problems that leave a lasting effect in Zanzibar. Students have examined, among other things, the impacts of climate change and coral bleaching on fish communities and fishermen's livelihoods, alternative energy sources for rural homes, the resilience of coastal plant and animal species, overcoming the salinization of the fresh water supply on oceanic islands, seaweed farming cooperatives for more sustainable livelihoods, robust eco-tourism approaches, and traditional healing strategies employing local plants.