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Blugold gains conservation skills, experience through international internship

| Judy Berthiaume

Wil Raasch was at orientation with students from Putnam Hall when he heard the chancellor encouraging students to plan carefully, challenging them to graduate in four years or less.

The UW-Eau Claire biology major decided to accept the challenge.

Two years later, Raasch was on track to graduate in 3½ years.

While that was good news, Raasch did realize there was one thing he had not yet done as a college student that was important to him: have an international experience.

“I was thinking last summer how I always wanted to study abroad, but it logistically could never work out,” says Raasch, a native of Greendale. “But because I finished my academic requirements early, I had an open semester. So instead of studying aboard like many others do in the middle of their college careers, I decided I could do it at the end and have a celebratory conclusion to college.”

Raasch loved a sustainable cities class he’d taken that included a faculty-led immersion by David Soll to Portland, Oregon, so he began exploring faculty-led international immersion programs.

A three-week Winterim course in Ecuador was intriguing, but Raasch’s goal was to spend several months in another country not just a few weeks.

That's when he decided to get a little creative.

If he enrolled in the three-week Winterim course, could he find an internship in Ecuador that would begin when the immersion program ended?

“I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge, and this passion expands beyond assigned course work,” Raasch says. “I always like to know my professors and have a feel for what’s going on in our department. I knew that thanks to Deb Freund the biology department has many international connections including in Cambodia and Ecuador.”

He went to his faculty mentors, including Dr. Wilson Taylor, for advice and support as he searched for the right opportunity.

“On Thanksgiving morning, I read my email from Richard Parsons, the owner and operator of The Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve,” Raasch says. “He said I was more than welcome to be a long-term intern with a focus on wildlife guiding.

“Within a few weeks, I took my final finals, moved from Eau Claire to Milwaukee, wished the family a Merry Christmas, and got on a plane for Ecuador.”

 The entire experience — from the Winterim immersion to the eco lodge internship — is exceeding expectations, Raasch says.

“The Winterim program was fantastic,” Raasch says. “The planning was superb and we all had very in-depth experiences. It was not a ‘touristy trip.’ The 16 students in the program are now a close-knit ‘Ecaufamilia.’”

One of the more memorable experiences was an invitation to join in a daybreak guyusa drinking ceremony with the Kitchwa community in the isolated forests of La Libertad, Raasch says.

“This experience exemplified great unity and acceptance for two unfamiliar groups of people,” Raasch says. “Such tolerance and welcoming are dynamics the world can always use more of.”

Raasch says he could feel the natural force of the forest the morning of the ceremony.

“The scale of this ecosystem’s majesty was well articulated in the Kichwa philosophy we learned,” he says. “Trees are protected because they live longer and are stronger than humans. As an environmentalist, this perspective was poignant and inspirational.”

The three-week Winterim immersion was the perfect way to get to know the country and culture before he jumped into the internship, Raasch says.

“It would have been extremely difficult to just come straight to the internship,” Raasch says. “I got to see the country first, meet many people, and get a feel for various Ecuadorian customs and culture. The immersion also gave me a chance to practice my Spanish before the internship.”

As an intern at the Bellavista Cloud Forest Reserve and Lodge in Tandayapa Valley of Ecuador, Raasch guides tourists and naturalists from around the world on daily hikes through the reserve’s extensive trails.

“They seek interesting flora and fauna, and I share enlightening information based on what we come across,” Raasch says of his primary duties, noting that he also does many other odd jobs that are necessary to running an eco-lodge.

A highlight of the internship, he says, is the many diverse people he meets.

“Connecting with people from around the globe, sharing stories and worldly outlooks is enlightening,” Raasch says. “I wake up every day in a marvelous environment. The natural wonder here never ceases to amaze me. It is an honor to be the one to lead people to such impressive and captivating features.”

Even better, he says, is that he is learning as much as he is teaching.

“I’m working at one of the pioneering eco lodges,” Raasch says. “I’m seeing the power of conservation first hand. I am part of an organization that protects primary forest and educates an eager audience of all ages. Bellavista helps to detail why nature is essential and not something we can manufacture or simply replace.”

Having an opportunity to put the knowledge he learned in his UW-Eau Claire classes to use in a place like Bellavista is the perfect way to transition from college to the real world, Raasch says.

“Students can take note that our university has remarkable study abroad connections as well as a biology department full of opportunities,” Raasch says. “I had a desire to travel. Now I’m able to spend 90 days in Ecuador while focusing on my major and building global connections. My passion to travel has now only increased.

“If you really want a full college experience, you have to get out of the classroom.”

His future is a mystery, but Raasch says his time in Ecuador has reassured him that his plans to pursue a career related to the environmental is the right path for him.

“I want to continue to travel internationally,” Raasch says. “I may find myself in graduate school abroad. I know that my ever expanding career will be environmentally focused, perhaps plant sciences; ethnobotany and agro ecology are both fascinating and open ended.”

While he never would have predicted that accepting the chancellor’s challenge given during orientation would lead to an internship in the Cloud Forest of Ecuador, Raasch says he’s very glad he “seized the day.”