This winter break, while many Mason students were stuck in frigid temperatures in the U.S., eight students were able to escape the cold and enjoy the dry, 70 degree weather of a Kenyan summer.

These eight Mason students not only earned the opportunity to study environmental conservation and wildlife in Kenya, they were also offered the chance to work with the African Wildlife Foundation (AFW).

“Students are now more interested in more exotic places. They’re also not satisfied with things that are easy to get — they’re interested in a real adventure,” said Academic Director Ryan Valdez, who has been teaching students in the Kenya study abroad program since 2010.

Valdez has been with the Kenya study abroad program since it began, conducting research with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

“During my research, I began working with the African Wildlife Foundation, who’s primary role is conservation. Over the year my collaboration got better and better, and the opportunity for my students to work with the AWF came up,” said Valdez, who is also working on his doctorate degree at Mason. “I’m always looking for new things for students to do, and I was specifically looking for internships.”

In the past, as a part of the Kenya study abroad program, it is required for students to write a science-based paper on their experiences, observations and studies while in Kenya. However, this winter Valdez decided to change the requirement to writing blogs for the AWF.

“The students would pick stories relevant to the AWF in Kenya,” Valdez said. “They’d pick a topic, research the background information and then they would write the content while they’re in the field. Together, they would make stories about what they’re specializing in.” John Probert, a sophomore studying environmental science and conservation, has dreamed of going to Kenya since he was young, and the Kenya study abroad program was one of his deciding factors for choosing Mason for undergraduate studies. Working with the AWF enriched his experience in Kenya.

“One of the first places we went to was the AWF headquarters in Karen. It was a beautiful place. While there, we got to talk to Dr. Philip Muruthi, the Chief Scientist for the AWF,” Probert said. “Hearing about conservation issues from a professional working directly in the field was very enlightening about what we would experience in our time in Kenya. The blog posts make me feel that our experiences will encourage others to do what they can to help conserve wildlife found in the United States and abroad.”

Writing the blog posts was also an exciting challenge for some students.

“Writing for other people is always difficult, and writing something that could potentially be published is even more intimidating — especially when you are writing about something that’s important to you,” said Olivia Cosby, who is a senior biology and ecology and conservation major, and an ocean and estuarine science minor.

Because the program went well for Valdez, he is considering doing the blog assignment again for the next Kenya study abroad trip. The blogs from this January, if approved by the AWF, should be posted by the end of May.