Student Stories: Rediscovery, resilience, and rejuvenation in Palau

Rachel Hargrove

Explore the vibrant lands and waters of Palau with Natural Resources student and recent OSU graduate Rachel, who participated in the faculty-led program Ridge to Reef: Sustainable Resource Management in Palau in Summer 2023.

What surprised you most during your travels? Why?

There were three things that most surprised me during my study abroad. The first was how similar the motivation for going to Palau was among the students, even those who were not natural science or sustainability majors. We were all seeking an immersive adventure that we knew would challenge us. Many of us had similar experiences of rediscovering our “inner child” or our passion again.

The second thing that surprised me was how few tourists there were in the locations we visited in Palau. The places I have spent the most time are Oregon and Hawaii, since those are the states where I have family. Both Hawaii and Oregon have a lot of tourist traffic, so that is what I’m accustomed to. There were places that were only a short hike or a short kayak to get to, yet no one was there aside from our group. It was an honor to have the unique experience of being the only people on an island.

The third thing that surprised me when traveling was how different it was in the country compared to the perception of Palau from outside the country. Most people that I talked to before going didn’t even know where the country is, but the information I found on the internet prior to arriving in Palau was not a complete picture of the culture or societal nuance. Much has changed there since the time of COVID, too.

Rachel and Abby in a bat cave in Nikko Bay.

How did your time abroad influence your thoughts on your field of study and/or career path?

My time abroad affirmed that I am well suited to my area of study. Because the trip was only two weeks long, the program leaders really made sure that we made the most of it. We had some days, especially up in Ollei, that were 10 or 12 hours where we were actively out on the boats or expected to be in a reflection meeting. We almost always had 2 or 3 big outings in a day. I loved every minute of it. Even when we were doing the hard work of pulling invasive weeds on the island of Kayangel in the midday sun, I was still ready for the next thing. Although, I did take a minute to jump in the ocean first! The experience reminded me of my own power and resilience, and how much I really enjoy hard work and the outdoors. I’m going to do everything I can to carry this feeling forward into my next adventure!

If you had to pick one, what was your all-time favorite experience while abroad? Why was it so meaningful?

It’s almost impossible to choose a single experience. There were so many bite-sized moments with new friends that I will carry with me forever, as well as full days that were incredibly fulfilling. My two favorite days were the one we all called the “sunrise to sunset day,” when we woke up in the morning, paddle boarded to an isolated island, went and rode Ebiil Channel, went fishing, foraged for clams, learned to process our fish, and sat together to watch the sunset. It was a day of firsts, that expanded my skills and mindset. Ebiil Channel was one of the most incredible places that I’ve ever been. We went along the edge of the reef, looking at all the array of fish, with a drop off and the deep blue right beside us.

I also loved the day we went to Jellyfish Lake and snorkeled at Cemetery Reef. It rained on us almost all day, even on the boat, but I loved every minute of it.

Some of the bite sized moments that I still think about include seeing the Manta Ray (which our guides at Paddling Palau knew as Lady Lolita) which was incredible. It reminded me of the beauty and delicacy of nature and inspired me to continue my path to experience and protect the nature around us. On the day off, I went to Nikko Bay with a classmate Abby and Cindy, a local who works for Ebiil Society. We went kayaking, and ended up eating lunch in a batcave, and drifting through an inlet listening to the ethereal calls of the Palauan Bushwarbler.

I laughed more than I have in ages with a few classmates, who, although I only knew them for a few weeks, had a huge impact on me. I will remember and treasure the friends I made in Palau, and hope that we will see one another in the future. Everything came together to create an amazing rejuvenating experience.

Mangrove services lecture with Ebiil society before going for a windy snorkel. Special thanks to Omar, Sharon, Aot, and Red!

What advice would you give to students considering an international experience?

I have a few different pieces of advice for students pursuing a study abroad. First, expect to be surprised and never assume anything. Cultural nuances are unexpected and oftentimes subtle. What may be fine in your own culture may carry different connotations in a new place. Similarly, something that seems normal to a local may make you uncomfortable. Ask your network questions when you can, know how to apologize gracefully, and respect the culture you are in. Keep your wits about you (especially if you participate in any nightlife) and refrain from making judgements. Second, engage with the in-country partners. Don’t only talk to fellow study abroad students; you’ll get so much more out of it if you interact with locals and the international people and resources available to you!

Finally, ask for help when you need it and speak up for yourself. While it’s important to respect the cultural differences, it’s important that you orchestrate a positive experience for yourself.

Ready to start your own study abroad adventure?

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