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May 14, 2015

Fragile Fiji and climate change

Two Michigan State University students have launched the university’s first-ever, student-designed and led study abroad program.

Alex Killion and Tracy Swem, fisheries and wildlife graduate students in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, selected Fiji, a place where climate change is already affecting the residents and industries on the island nation.

“Fiji is a great place to study the effects of climate change because noticeable impacts such as rising sea levels, the frequency of intense weather and changes in precipitation directly impact the livelihoods of native Fijians,” Swem said. “We’ll study the ecology, ecotourism and agriculture of three different socioeconomic regions of Fiji that are affected by climate change.”

The three-week program launched on May 9 and is challenging 14 undergraduate students to create practical solutions to deal with the effects of climate change. The interdisciplinary initiative has an emphasis on engagement with local people and exploring the island nation’s culture and biodiversity.

The students are guests in native villages, where they are expected to take part in traditional family life. By communicating one-on-one with Fijians, they should gain a better understanding of the role that each family plays in the village, she added.

During the course, the students will work in a marine protected area as well as help with farming, processing coconuts, weaving and subsistence fishing. They also will participate in ongoing conservation programs, such as mangrove planting.

One of the field trips will be a two-day visit to KokoSiga Pacific, a Fiji-based agribusiness firm specializing in vanilla and cocoa. The company has a history of working with native Fijians on planting climate-resilient crops. Fiji’s major exported crop is currently sugar, but the country is diversifying export crops to improve food security in the face of climate change.

Exploring a place and topic in-person has long-proven to be an effective learning experience, said Gary Roloff, associate professor of fisheries and wildlife.

“Studying abroad as an undergraduate can be a life-changing event,” said Roloff, the faculty instructor for the trip. “Getting students outside the classroom and putting what they’ve learned into practice helps prepare students for their future careers.”

The project will conclude with a visit to the “touristy” area of Fiji, where the group will experience of how tourism can negatively affect the environment, culture and sustainability.

“One of our goals is to show our students what’s behind the pictures they see of a Fiji, that is known only as a resort,” Swem said.


For more information on this project, visit