By Abigail Cloutier
While most Youngstown State University students walked the stage in Beeghly Center during fall commencement, Mckenzie Learn crossed a beach on San Salvador Island to earn her diploma.
Learn graduated with a degree in geography during the trip, which was led by Ron Shaklee, chair of the YSU Department of Geography and Urban-Regional Studies.
“In 2018, I went on the trip, and two of my friends actually had their [graduation] ceremony on the island,” Learn said. “You’re able to have an intimate ceremony with someone you’ve seen as a mentor all throughout college and being able to share that experience.”
But the unforgettable moment meant Learn had to take out a loan her last semester of college.
“I know as a senior wanting to go on the trip, it was more of a financial burden for me,” Learn said. “I had to take out another loan to go on the trip. While my last semester of college should have been around $4,000, it ended up almost being $7,000. … But I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
To defray that expense for students, Shaklee created the Shaklee Honors Study Abroad Scholarship in partnership with the YSU Foundation.
“It’s for students who may not be on other honors scholarships,” Shaklee said. “Not everyone in honors is getting honors money. It’s intended to help people who may not be able to do this kind of thing.”
In the future, Shaklee will crowdfund the scholarship through donations from alumni who went on the tropical ecology trip to the Bahamas.
Shaklee said he has been leading the honors research trip for over 30 years and the trip is a “life-changing experience for a large number of reasons.”
“For many of them, it’s their first trip outside of the United States. For some, rare but a few, they have never been on an airplane before,” he said. “Usually, about 50% haven’t been on an international excursion. It really opens their eyes.”
Many of the students develop a sense of community with their peers since they are all experiencing a different culture together.
The research completed over the last three decades has contributed to the Gerace Research Centre, which is part of the University of the Bahamas.
“They’re contributing to the Bahamians, who may not be able to afford to put together a group of 20 people to go out and do research,” Shaklee said. “That makes it a more fulfilling experience.”
Students also have an opportunity to participate in different types of research, which include studying the effects of climate change on the island and studying localized weather.
Learn said she completed a research project that measured the salinity of drinking water in the Bahamas.
“I didn’t realize how bad the well field was the first time I went on the trip,” Learn said. “We had salinity readings of over 10,000, and salinity readings we have in the U.S. are under 100.”
Taylor Tomb, a junior education major, said that the ecology trip enriched her academic experience.
“You get to travel and gain school credit for it,” Tomb said. “I met so many new people.”
Tomb said she encourages other students to apply for study abroad programs before they graduate.
“I think his scholarship is going to be amazing for YSU,” Tomb said. “I would highly recommend doing [study abroad]. You’re only young for so long, too. Before you have responsibilities and obligations, go and see new things before it’s too late.”