Some Educational Experiences May Require Machete
by Donna Emert
As soon as she finishes up her work eradicating invasive species from the Galapagos Islands, and if she does not get a job with the circus in Ecuador, University of Idaho international studies student Michelle Polansky will return to Moscow, Idaho this fall, and maybe even enter a classroom for some traditional book learning.
Though she is actively, and creatively, pursuing a degree in international studies, it is likely she won’t remain in her seat for long: Polansky has been getting her education on the road for several years now. And the University of Idaho currently is facilitating her travel bug.
The bug bit early and hard: While she was in high school, a college student gave a presentation on his study abroad in Spain to Polansky's freshman Spanish class.
“I decided I would do anything to go,” said Polanksy. “I convinced my parents and spent all my savings. It was worth every penny and all the debt I am in to my parents for the traveling bug it gave me.”
At 15, she lived with a family in Spain for a summer, soaking up Spanish language and culture, “traveling and becoming my own person.”
At 17, she attended surf school in Costa Rica and picked up a few more life lessons. “I learned that I love to learn about other cultures and societies,” she said. “I also learned that I love to travel solo. The feeling of independence is empowering and exciting, and it is amazing how many friends you pick up along the way.”
After graduating from high school, Polansky had the opportunity to take a paid, 10-day tour of Israel. As a young Jewish person that had not yet been to Israel, that opportunity is considered her birthright. She stretched that 10-day adventure into a full summer’s stay.
“The tour group left and I stayed, traveling around, volunteering and living on an Israeli army base. It is mandatory for all Israelis, both men and woman, to serve in the army when they turn 18,” Polansky said. “It was a great way to experience such a large part of their culture, and what a drastic difference it is to be going into the army straight after high school, instead of college like in the states.”
The summer after her sophomore year at the University of Idaho, she traveled back to Israel to serve as an ecological volunteer in Kibbutz Lotan, living there in a geodesic mud dome and learning about permaculture – organic farming, natural building, sustainable living and creative ecology. The community featured compost toilets, solar ovens and solar energy. Many of its structures were built from mud and trash.
She spent last spring semester studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador, a University of Idaho Direct program that her Spanish adviser, Irina Kappler-Crookston, recommended. The trip was facilitated by the University’s International Programs Office. In Ecuador, she met University of Idaho resident director, José Yanez, who also served as one of her professors at the university in Quito.
There she made another dream come true.
“I joined a circus arts group at Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Ecuador (PUCE) in Quito,” said Polansky, "It led to several performances with the group as well as participating in a circus convention in Nanegalito, Ecuador, at the end of the semester."
“I mostly perform the aerial silks. I have been doing gymnastics since age two, and when a circus arts studio opened near my house in Denver, in high school, I was eager to join. There I began to learn the aerial silks, trapeze and lyra,” Polansky recalled.
Off the trapeze and long out of the geodesic mud dome, Polansky currently is volunteering in the Galapagos Islands, machete in hand.
“My summer volunteer work is with Ecuador Eco Volunteer,” she said. “I live on San Cristobal Island, and am working on a controlled plot of land and in the national park to eliminate introduced/invasive plant species – all done by machete! I'm also working to restore native and endemic species, growing the plants first in a greenhouse, then transplanting them to their permanent locations.”
Polansky and her team, comprised of volunteers from around the world, also spend two days a week assisting in community projects, including helping local farmers, building fences and houses and clearing land, and teaching English.
Meanwhile, she also manages to maintain her commitment as a member of the University of Idaho’s Borah Committee, participating in meetings via phone from the Galapagos. That faculty and student committee determines the focus of the Borah Sympoisum.
Her desire to actively participate in her own education feeds an adventurous spirit.
“I don’t know if I am exactly fearless, but the fearlessness I do have derives out of curiosity and the desire for adventure, said Polanksy. “I most definitely have learned this skill as well through all of my travel experiences, and from my mom. My mom has supported every crazy idea I have ever had. She has taught me to do my own thing, to not be scared and just roll with the punches.”
“I really believe that it is experiences that help you grow and develop your character. I would say I really have learned how to work and live in a variety of settings with a variety of people. The lessons I have learned through all of these experiences are seriously countless.”