Imagine living on a boat drifting through open waters, diving deep into the ocean with heavy scuba gear on, swimming with exotic marine life, and watching the ecosystem of a coral reef move through it’s routine.
This is the adventure Junior, India Austin, had the privilege to take this past summer. In March 2015 India applied for the Broad Reach Foundation’s marine biology trip to the Caribbean. The Broad Reach Foundation is a non-profit organization founded in 1993 that has taken over 12,000 students to learn over the summer in 35 different countries.
According to the Broad Reach Foundation’s official website, the program “combines the finest elements of experiential learning, traditional classroom learning, and service learning with international travel and cultural exchange to create extraordinary expeditions.”
After extensive essays and a nerve racking phone interview, she was accepted in May and found out she had been awarded with the full scholarship to the Caribbean.
“I was not employed when I was accepted into the program, but quickly took the first job I could find. I worked full time (five days a week) for one entire month at M&R Construction cleaning newly constructed houses.” India said.
The only thing excluded from the scholarship was the cost of the plane ticket, extra equipment, and spending money. This labor intensive job was India’s first. On most days she worked eight hour days in the sweltering Mississippi heat.
After funding what would be her first flight, let alone international flight, India was off to Saint Martin Island in the Caribbean. Once landed she called her parents for the last time before her counselors took all the students’ phones-there would be no need since there was little to no service everywhere they went.
There are around 82 middle school and high school students accepted to the program every year. The students were separated into groups. India’s had 15 people, 2 instructors a skipper and the 12 students, who then loaded onto a 49 ft boat for the next two weeks. India’s group went to many islands including: St. Martin, Ile Fourche, Colombier, Gustavia (St. Barts), Saba, and Ile Tintemarre.
Everything was done either on the boat or in the water. They had classes, showered, and even used the restroom in the water. The main thing done onboard was the cooking, along with holding a few classes. The classes India took were general marine biology class, fish identification, coral identification, and scuba diving specialities such as how to night dive. India’s favorite class was coral identification.
She attended so many lectures on diving safety that there was no room left in her mind for fear.
“Once underwater, I felt the pressure changes for the first time and I admit, I did feel panicked. After several minutes under, I adapted and overcame the sense of being trapped and felt more weightless than I ever had before.” India said.
One of the more memorable dives that India took while on the trip was of the coast of Saba, an exclusive area that Broad Reach was allowed to go.
“It was some of the best diving I think I will ever experience.” India said. “There were shipwrecks, a wall that was just covered in coral and seaweed, and a lot of wildlife.”
She also hiked a volcano on Saba named Mt. Scenery, which is where the original Tarzan movie was filmed.
For India, one of the hardest parts of the trip was not having contact with her parents. Over the course of two weeks she was allowed a phone call only once. One can imagine this was hard on her parents as well.
“We went for days without knowing where she was or what she was doing. My husband and I kept telling each other if something bad had happened they would call us and tell us.” Said Kimberly Austin, India’s mother and OHS English teacher.
However, this was not India’s first marine biology camp. She had gone on a week long shark tagging voyage last year through University of Southern Mississippi. India hopes to pursue marine biology as a career. She won an award from the Broad Reach Foundation called Alumni Ambassador for being inclusive towards other students and embodying the foundation’s values.
“I received this award for my effort to make the trip fun for everyone, not just for myself. I am incredibly honored to have received this award, the kids aboard were top notch and superbly behaved.” She said. “This award was the icing on the cake for me.”
Because of the award, India is now in the program and has an opportunity to take a free trip next year. She also has the opportunity to be a diving instructor once she earns her certification and turns 18.
“I love and respect the dive instructors who taught me how to explore a new world safely, and to be able to do the same for someone else would be like returning the favor.” India said.
India is still in contact with many of her classmates on the boat and now considers them some of her best friends. She says the diversity Broadreach offered was astonishing.There were even language barriers that were “ultimately conquered through patience and acceptance.”
“I met people from places I had never heard of. Being exposed to different life styles was an enlightening and perspective altering opportunity that I will never take for granted.” India said
On this trip India learned how to step out of her comfort zone with all the things that she had never experienced.
“I have gained an empowering sense of self-confidence that will follow me throughout the entirety of my life.” India said.