GPS, maps, field guides... Journal. I’ll be bringing the same journal I took to East Africa when I studied abroad seven years ago. There are still many blank pages and it just feels right to pick up where I left off. I open it to the first page.
7 September 2010 – Day 1
“My first night in Tanzania… wow. It’s been such a long journey… There is joy in my heart – a pounding, soaring, screaming joy – and at the same time a calm, centered, serene kind of joy… It was like coming home to a family I had never met, to a place where I belonged yet had never been.”
I close my eyes and remember that feeling. I remember driving into our camp at the edge of the small Tanzanian village of Rhotia. The other students and I were the inaugural group of American students lucky enough to be selected to participate in the School for Field Studies’ (SFS) first year of wildlife management training in Tanzania. I can see the faces of our neighbors, their smiles seeming to glow with warmth. These neighbors were the first to welcome us, they shook our hands, took us into their arms in traditional East African embraces. They made us feel as though we were not strangers, but rather relatives returning home after a long stay abroad. I vividly remember feeling as though the joy would literally burst from my body. I could have cried then but I didn’t. Just two weeks later however, I could no longer hold back those tears of joy.
On that day I had spent hours driving around Tarangire National Park. Along with my field mates, I was conducting habitat assessments and wildlife counts in the region. I visited the research station of the Tarangire Lion Project, saw the radio collars waiting to be attached to lions in the prides that we studied, and learned about all of the research that was being conducted in the park by my professor and his team. At mid-day I sat at an overlook, taking in the vast, open landscape of Tarangire, thinking that it seemed extraordinary somehow, prehistoric, like an illusion in time. The land was dry and golden, with green and brown trees poking up everywhere. To one side, a river zigzagged into the distance. There were elephants walking between the trees, babies staying close at the heels of their mothers. I was truly overwhelmed by the infinite beauty of Tanzania, its history and wisdom, and the juxtaposition of richness and harshness. I was finally seeing it with my own eyes the way I dreamed I would. For me, this wasn’t a holiday or a trip I had taken on a whim. It wasn’t a typical study abroad experience, the cost of which I simply charged to my parents. No, this was the realization of a dream that began when I was young, one that I had worked to achieve for years, and that I finally had the opportunity to engineer as an undergraduate at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU).
I first found out about this study abroad program as a sophomore at PSU. Centered on the instruction of practical field studies for wildlife management, conservation, and community engagement, I recognized immediately that this opportunity was perfectly suited for me. I had dreamed of studying wildlife in Africa since I was a little girl and that dream had developed into the clear career goal I realized as a young adult. Then located at an SFS center in Kenya, this program would give me the chance to really experience life in Africa, from tent camping out in the bush, to presenting my own research findings to local wildlife managers and stakeholders. I put together the strongest application I could and applied as quickly as possible. Elation set in when I received an email that I had been accepted into the program. The feeling was only temporary though, because a barrier had been put directly in my path by the University’s Financial Aid Office. I was informed that my financial aid package could not be attributed to the SFS program and instead I, and any other PSU student interested in attending, would need to pay out of pocket for the expenses. There was no chance of this, however, as my pockets were completely empty. Growing up in a poor family, it had always been clear to me that if I wanted to attend college I would be paying for the privilege on my own. And when the news from the Financial Aid Office came through I was already struggling to make ends meet irrespective of the tuition, program fees, and plane ticket costs associated with a study abroad. I was scanning pages out of classmates’ textbooks because I couldn’t afford my own, borrowing from my friends just to pay my rent, and spending holidays alone to save on gas money while others were traveling or heading home. The system was willing me to quit, to abandon my ambitious dream and the prospect of international field research experience. I was devastated, but I chose not to give up. For the next year and a half, I negotiated with the Financial Aid and Global Programs offices. I diligently worked to fill in every piece of paperwork and to address every question that they asked of me. I struck negotiations between PSU and SFS and finally, finally I was successful! Not only did I secure enough money for myself but I also convinced PSU to amend their polices, opening the door for other qualified, disadvantaged students to enroll in this program. Since that time, dozens of PSU students have benefited from my efforts and been able to apply their financial aid packages to SFS study abroad programs around the world. Additionally, the East African SFS program had evolved during that time to become a multi-country experience. Not only would I study and conduct research in Kenya, but I would also have the honor to be in the first student cohort at the new Tanzanian location as well, establishing the connections that would lay the groundwork for the success of future groups. This felt like a personal reward for my commitment and I could not have asked for more.
I was so proud of that achievement, proud of myself for not giving up on my dream despite how impossible it may have seemed back then. And as I sat looking over the unimaginably brilliant landscape of Tarangire that day, all of it hit me – the hurt and disappointment, the fight, and the accomplishment. I cried because I had finally made it. I cried because it was just so damned beautiful!
12 December 2010 – Day 97
“I am sitting in Newark airport. I have no sense of time right now… Yesterday I was looking out at zebras and wildebeests, and today I am eating McDonalds under Christmas lights. I’m not sure how it will feel to be ‘home.' Weird.”
I had been right. It was strange to be back in the U.S. after months in Africa. I was disconcerted in the most common of places. I no longer understood why the grocery store stocked a hundred different flavors of yogurt. I felt personally offended when I saw someone wasting water. Reintegrating into my friendship group was also harder than I thought. I was reluctant to share stories of my experience for fear that it would distance me even farther from those I used to be familiar with. I had grown so connected to that world, especially Tanzania and its people, I had no desire to be anywhere else. I had never felt more at home anywhere than I did there and now. With my study abroad credits completing my college degree, I was on my own and had no actual home to return to. I became physically and mentally a nomad. Over the next six years, I would live and work in five different states and two countries, always longing for that far off place that was closest to my heart.
Little did I know then that seven years later, I would be returning to that exact location, to initiate my own research efforts studying lion and cattle interactions in the villages surrounding Tarangire National Park. I am now a University Distinguished and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at Michigan State University. I am a first-year Ph.D. student in the Research on the Ecology of Carnivores and their Prey Laboratory (RECaP). In RECaP, we are a large vibrant community with half of the 16-person team being American and the other half coming to MSU from East Africa. It’s amazing to be surrounded by so many like-minded, passionate people, whom I am lucky to call my friends and colleagues. I’ve definitely found happiness here and a new sense of belonging. I love spending every day studying the things that interest me most and preparing to conduct my field research. This is my place now, the hub from which I will continue to reach for my goals. This is my launch point to return to Tanzania.
I try to stop daydreaming and focus on the task at hand. I can’t get to where I’m going if I don’t pack these bags. I shuffle around a few things in my carry-on, making sure to throw in the last essential items.
Malaria pills, vaccination forms, research permits... Passport. Unlike the journal, this is not the same one as before. Fresh new pages. New name. Already distracted by my thoughts, I let myself take a look at the first page. There is my face and everything the world is supposed to know about me.
Place of birth: PENNSYLVANIA. U.S.A.
That was my place once. I’ve left it behind now but it will forever be a part of what defines me. It will always be there in big bold letters on my passport and I will need to recount that fact on every immigration form that I fill out. I think about Pennsylvania, the small run-down part of Pittsburgh where I grew up, and that house on the hill that represented “home.” The one with the holes punched through the walls. The one with the garbage bags full of empty beer cans stacked in the basement. I had struggled even before I was on my own in college. I had been searching for a refuge even before I was inspired by Tanzania.
The backdrop of my youth was a sky of smog clouds erupting from the once-successful steel mill that characterized my town. I hung out with my friends on huge piles of coal and rode my bike along the cracked streets, even at night, just to avoid being at home. I had to put several blocks between me and that house before I could no longer hear my father yelling. He was always drunk and always angry, attacking whichever one of us was closest at hand. It didn’t matter that my mom worked full time in addition to taking care of the house and cooking dinner every night. It didn’t matter that both my brother and I somehow managed to stay focused and qualify for the top of our classes. None of that mattered. My father needed to show that he was in control and to ensure that we felt powerless. He needed to tell us over and over again how we couldn’t do anything right, how we didn’t listen, how we were selfish, and how we should be punished. One night when I was 15, my father, fueled by profuse amounts of Genesee, wrapped his hands around my brother’s throat in a fit of rage. Backed into a corner, this indelible memory represents for me the first time that I came to understand that I wasn’t powerless. Trembling I picked up our family phone and dialed 911. Whispering into the phone I communicated the state of my household. Knowing full well the consequences of my actions, I locked myself in the bedroom. Through the window streamed red and blue lights and the sounds of men arguing, car doors opening and slamming. I have not seen nor communicated with my father in the 14 years since. After that night our house became a place I was no longer afraid to return to. Although we were finally a functional family of three, we all shared the same desire to leave that place.
Surname: BECK. Given names: JACALYN MARA.
The people I knew in Pennsylvania, those I met in Africa on my first trip, many friends from my past – all called me by a different name. Until two years ago I was Jacalyn Marie Jeffery. Although my father was out of my life, I still bore his last name. It disgusted me to see it, to spell it out to people on the phone, to think that I would one day be published as a scientist under that label. So it was time for me to take control again, this time for good, to coin my own identity. I was inspired by my mother, her strength and character, and the deep connection she had had with her own mother. I decided to adopt her family name, Beck, and eventually when the change was official it felt so natural for me. The more complex decision related to my middle name. I contemplated who I saw myself to be, and how I wanted to present myself to the world with my new title. I was reminded of when I first returned from Tanzania and how hard it was to share the depth of my experiences with others, to explain how I had changed and yet how I felt more wholly myself. I thought of those landscapes that so moved me – the Serengeti, and Tsavo, Chyulu, Manyara, Tarangire, and the Mara, from which I would ultimately draw my identifying inspiration – and how I wanted to be open and visible, to show the geography of my heart, and to never again fear being known. Thus, with the change of one more syllable, from Marie to Mara, I made my name my own.
To see my name in writing now is difficult to describe. It makes me feel proud and capable, satisfied but determined to achieve so much more. Now my name can be found on lists of fellowship awardees and as a coauthor on several publications. I find this new reality both empowering and humbling. I have set my own standard, and I must live up to it. My name represents for me a constant reminder to try always to be my best self, to not be afraid or intimidated, and to never give in or give up. My name is a symbol of my evolution, of not only all I have endured and overcome, but of the joys I have realized and choose to hold close. When I see my name in print, I see a future that is always mine to create, a place of my choosing. I see the beautiful lands where I will continue to chase my wildest dreams.
In every single way I have been preparing for this trip. I have made myself for this, and I am ready now.
I tuck my passport into a pocket, take one last look around my closet, then finally zip up my last bag. That’s everything. This is what I take with me. Time to go home.