Student’s Hawaii experience reinforces environmental classwork

For most Cornell students, plans to study somewhere off campus were put on hold this academic year. The same was true for Carl Beach ’22, who was hoping to spend this semester improving his Spanish skills by studying abroad in Spain.

But not willing to give up on the travel idea, Beach followed up on a program he’d heard about through his environment and sustainability major, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). He decided to take a semester off to work on an organic lettuce farm … with his girlfriend …in Hawaii. (Yes, Carl has made the best of a rotten pandemic year.)

As birds sing in the background, Beach talks about what he’s gained from the experience so far – a greater appreciation of the challenges of family farms, a close-up view of the animals and plants that live in the tidal pools of a tropical region and the chance to learn to surf.

“I wanted to travel and I realized I was pretty detached from the food I eat,” he said. “I also have gained an understanding of the history of the family that owns this farm and I can now imagine how they would react to environmental disasters or changes in policy that regulate how they sell or grow their crops.”

fields of lettuce

His daily duties include picking, washing and packing lettuce, then loading trucks for delivery. He also plants, weeds and works on irrigation lines for the lettuce and takes care of orchards that grow coffee, bananas, coconuts and avocadoes.

On the farm, Beach and his girlfriend work alongside six other “WWOOFers,” all young people who have an interest in agriculture, travel or the environment. He has also met many people who are working remotely and choosing to do that in Hawaii.

Beach said the COVID restrictions definitely played a role in his plan to take a semester off. He was on campus last fall.

“I think Cornell did as good a job as possible with the pandemic, but I really miss the in-person instruction and some of my extracurricular activities, especially with music,” he said, adding that he’s a member of The Original Cornell Syncopators, as well as his own band, Elevation 404.

student hiking

“There can sometimes be a negative perception or feeling for students around taking a leave of absence, when in reality, it can often be super beneficial for students depending on their situation,” said Jayla Greene, an advising dean in the College of Arts & Sciences. “Especially in our current circumstances, taking time off or exploring other opportunities can allow a student to grow and think in ways they may not be able to while enrolled in a full semester of classes. I think this pandemic has helped students realize what’s important, and that’s pursuing things that bring them joy while gaining knowledge that will help them decide who they hope to become beyond Cornell.”

Beach, who is also majoring in government, said his environmental interests come from an ongoing appreciation for the outdoors, including a lot of time spent at his family’s camp in Vermont, and talking with his grandfather, who started an environmental organization in Beach’s hometown of Syracuse.

This summer, Beach plans to return for an internship on the mainland, but he says his island semester has opened up some other future options.

“I do want to go to law school down the road, but this experience has made me realize I want to travel before settling down in a specific area.”

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