Ecostudents: The New Wave of Students Abroad


Sandra Woy-Hazelton

The purpose of study abroad is the same for all students: to enhance their understanding of a subject through firsthand experience. Recent emphasis on internationalizing the curriculum has provided more opportunities to study overseas by expanding the topics and destinations possible. Along with traditional programs that emphasize the politics or culture of the nation visited, many universities and organizations are now offering programs of environmental study in developing nations. The subjects of study include sustainable development, deforestation, rural and agrarian land management, and environmental policymaking. All together, they have given rise to a new generation of ecostudents.

Ecostudents place their academic focus on understanding the natural environment and protecting fragile ecosystems in different regions of the world. They share characteristics with both academic researchers and modern ecotourists. Although the length of ecostudy programs varies, ecostudents typically study a body of knowledge, conduct observations in the field, and write papers or take tests to demonstrate their learning. Although such students at the undergraduate level are not scientific researchers—in the sense of being expected to generate and disseminate new findings—they do engage in field projects using sampling techniques to, for example, measure biodiversity or compare habitats. Professors who lead these programs often have conducted research in the region visited, and view themselves as preparing researchers of the future.

Ecostudents also share characteristics with modern ecotourists. Both begin with the same fundamental expectation: to learn about the natural environment of another place. Both visit many of the same parks, walk many of the same trails, and hear many of the same talks given by naturalists. Both are likely to travel as part of a group, an experience that may increase their breadth of travel while tending to isolate them from much contact with local inhabitants—the so-called “cocoon” effect. Moreover, while many ecostudents undergo country orientation and speak the language of the region visited, others lack much preparation for becoming immersed in the local culture—a situation they share with many ecotourists.

Both ecostudents and their instructors may take pains to differentiate themselves from “tourists,” out of a dislike for the negative connotations of the word. They tend to seek out “rugged” experiences, and expect to see and do things that ordinary tourists do not—an expectation that trip leaders work hard to fulfill. Even the designation of “ecotourist” is likely to be rejected, out of the sense (right or wrong) that ecotourism often involves more hype than substance. However, there are arguably some benefits to acknowledging that ecostudents do have things in common with ecotourists.

The concept of ecotourism evolved during the 1980s in recognition of the possibilities inherent in combining tourism with the preservation of natural areas in developing countries. The concept has varying definitions, some more activist than others. Mark Orams envisions the ecotourist as someone who bears an active responsibility to “practice a non-consumptive use of wildlife and natural resources and contribute to the visited area through labor or financial resources aimed at directly benefiting the conservation of the site.” In contrast, Ceballos-Lascurain offers a more passive definition of the eco-tourist as one who travels “to relatively undisturbed or uncontaminated areas with the specific objective of studying, admiring, and enjoying the scenery and its wild plants and animals, as well as any existing cultural manifestations (both past and present) found in these areas.”

Ecotourism is becoming an important element in sustainable development in many regions. The desire for ecotourism to serve the objectives of both economic development and environmental preservation is, of course, fraught with contradictions—doubtless accounting for some of the negative reactions to it. Nevertheless, the principles of ecotourism constitute worthy goals. They may be summed up as:

1. When traveling in relatively undisturbed environments, minimize the disturbance by, and impact of, visitors as much as possible.

2. Maximize the educational value of the experience.

3. Ensure that local people derive economic benefits from tourism.

4. Contribute to the improvement of habitat protection.

A similar formulation of these principles is found in the Costa Rica Audubon Society’s Code of Environmental Ethics for Ecotourism, below.

Those who plan ecostudy programs need to consider several things. One is how to diminish the cocoon effect of group study and travel, and provide ways for students to better connect with local people. For example, some programs offer scholarships to include local students in the course of study or on field trips. Others arrange for visiting students to attend university classes or other events that will bring them into contact with their peers in the host country.

A second consideration is how to promote the active protection of local environments, as advocated by Orams. From an academic perspective, helping students to acquire knowledge, develop research skills, and practice the ethics of conservation does entail active participation in the environment. However, the greatest difficulty for some environmentalists is to see their locale of study as something more than a research treasure trove. We should consider how our ecostudy programs can contribute to sustainable development in a community, for example, by university donations to local environmental groups and student efforts to preserve specific sites.

Finally, we should consider how to encourage our students to maintain connections with the area visited. Survey responses to our own university program in Costa Rica suggest that our returning students now read more about the region in general, and Costa Rica in particular. Several have begun to study Spanish, while others have gone back to visit or continue the research they were engaged in. Many speak of the lasting impressions gained from their exposure to the vast biological diversity that makes Costa Rica such a compelling ecodestination. Where their experiences may lead them in their life’s work will remain a matter of lasting interest to us.


Sandra Woy-Hazelton is Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Sciences at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. The university has offered summer field courses in Costa Rica for the past seven years. To access the course of syllabus on Tropical Ecosystems of Costa Rica and Panama and an extensive picture library, visit



Costa Rica Audubon Society Code of Environmental Ethics for Ecotourism

> Wildlife and habitats should not be needlessly disturbed.

> Waste should be disposed of properly.

> Tourism should be a positive influence on local communities.

> Tourism should be culturally sensitive.

> Wildlife, wildlife products, and plants should not be bought.

> Tourism should strengthen conservation efforts and enhance the natural integrity of places visited.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.