Professors Gain International Perspective in Rapa Nui

Professors Gain International Perspective in Rapa Nui

Professors Gain International Perspective in Rapa Nui
2014 McCorkle Fellows: David Boelter, Dr. Heather York, Dr. Joni Anderson, Dr. Swasti Bhattacharyya and Dr. Annamaria Formichella-Elsden.

Five Buena Vista University faculty members recently visited Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, as part of the McCorkle Fellowship program. During the 12 day trip, the Fellows visited various destinations and landmarks across the island's 63 square miles, gaining international perspectives and broadening their field of knowledge in their academic specialties.

The 2014 McCorkle Fellows are:

  • Dr. Joni Anderson, associate professor of management
  • Dr. Swasti Bhattacharyya, professor of philosophy and religion
  • David Boelter, associate professor of art
  • Dr. Annamaria Formichella-Elsden, professor of English
  • Dr. Heather York, assistant professor of biology

The Fellows spent two days in the capital of Santiago, Chile, and visiting Vina del Mar and Valparaiso on the Pacific coast before taking a flight to Rapa Nui, which belongs to Chile, politically, but is more than 2000 miles from the mainland. The rest of their trip was spent on the island, exploring various sites, visiting with locals and experiencing the island and its people.

Rapa Nui is the most isolated inhabited island in the world and is known for its famous stone statues called moai. The Fellows took the opportunity to study the statues at restored and unrestored sites and explore the quarries from which the stone statues were carved. They also visited a local school built on the site of a former leper colony and learned about the island's approach to environmental sustainability.

Bhattacharyya, who has participated in several previous McCorkle Fellowship trips, proposed this year's destination and led the trip. "I proposed Rapa Nui with an eye toward drawing in research and course interests of faculty from all five schools at BVU," said Bhattacharyya. "The early Rapa Nui people, moai, petroglyphs, other carvings and the many questions surrounding these were an obvious tie-in for faculty of all backgrounds. It also gave us a chance to explore the many challenges and opportunities that arise for this tiny island and her people as the world comes to visit, including the demand on natural resources."

Through Bhattacharyya's connections, the Fellows were able to stay with a local Rapa Nui family who also served as their guide on the island. "Though I had been to the island before, it was nice to be able to see the various sites at a different time of year, with different lighting. I also enjoyed the conversations with Ramon, our host/guide, and his experiences on the island, the continent and the United States," said Bhattacharyya. "Rapa Nui has been referred to as a microcosm of how things are progressing on the Earth at large, and this trip reinforced for me just how limited our resources are, how powerful nature is and how important it is for us to be very mindful of how we are utilizing the Earth's limited resources."

For all of the other Fellows, this was their first McCorkle Fellowship trip. They all found the moai statues fascinating and each faculty member took something unique away from the experience that they could bring to their courses.

Boelter had previously taught about Rapa Nui and its artwork in his classes. "This trip will completely evolve the way I teach about the island, its history and its artwork in my classes," said Boelter. "Not only did I become much more informed about all three, but I can now speak about them in ways that I could have never done prior to the trip. I can now include photos that I have taken of objects and areas that I was not able to acquire prior to going there. I can discuss things like sounds of the ocean waves behind an ahu, the effects of years of salt water mist on the statues, the rough waters around Moto Nui and the overwhelming spiritual ambience of the island."

From a science perspective, York, who has researched tropical biology in several areas of Latin America, considered this trip as an extension of those experiences and found that she gained a better understanding of the human and biological history of Rapa Nui. "I plan to use Rapa Nui as a case study of island biogeography and human impacts on the environment in my courses. It is a perfect example of the interface between natural processes and human influences, with distinctions between historic and modern processes adding additional elements," said York. "I see many possibilities for student research that could use ideas about genetic isolation and population dynamics much closer to home, and there would be many student-based research projects that could be done on Rapa Nui, should the opportunity ever arise. I also intend to collaborate with the other BVU faculty from the Rapa Nui trip in interdisciplinary teaching."

As a literature instructor and creative writer, Formichella-Elsden found the island and trip to be a moving and inspiring experience. "Whenever one visits another culture, one gains a new appreciation of human diversity, as well as a new perspective on one's own familiar way of life. Overall, I gained a broader understanding of the human experience and a renewed passion to treat the earth respectfully," said Formichella-Elsden. "My mind is buzzing with ideas for short stories and poems. Most prominent for me was a heightened awareness of spirits while I was on Rapa Nui. I'm also fascinated by the ancient Rapa Nui form of writing, called rongorongo. I was able to view some authentic tablets and learned about the complex way the figures were carved and intended to be read."

The island's economy served as inspiration for Anderson. "I had a chance to learn more about the Rapa Nui business structure and resource allocation in an economy that is made up primarily of service jobs," says Anderson. "In addition, I had the pleasure of learning from each of my colleagues about unique aspects of the island from an art to zoology perspective."

This was the ninth year of the McCorkle Fellowship program, which was established through the generosity of the late Drs. Paul and Vivian McCorkle, Class of 1959, who were both Life Trustees of BVU, to provide selected faculty members with an opportunity for international travel to enhance their scholarly knowledge and to add international dimensions to the curriculum. Previous locations selected for McCorkle Fellows have included Argentina and Peru (2006); India (2007); Israel and Egypt (2008); Turkey (2009); Japan (2010); South Korea (2011); Kenya and Rwanda (2012); and Spain and Morocco (2013).