Africa: Virginia Tech Draws Foreign Students to Conservation Program

Washington — Twenty-seven percent of the graduate students in the renowned fish and wildlife conservation program at Virginia Tech University come from outside the United States.

They hail from Austria, Canada, China, Colombia, Ghana, Mexico, Nepal, Senegal, South Africa and Spain. Sometimes they research or manage birds, mammals, reptiles or amphibians. Sometimes they research or manage aquatic animals and ecosystems, including shellfish, endangered species, sport fish and aquaculture fish.

The international graduate students work with American students at the Virginia Tech (VT) College of Natural Resources and Environment, specifically in its Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, one of the oldest and most highly regarded programs of its kind in the United States.

"Our intent is that our students gain the scientific knowledge, technical and analytical skills and critical thinking ability needed to make original contributions to the field of fish and wildlife conservation," said professor Eric Hallerman, who heads the department. "That intent is the same regardless of whether our students eventually work in the United States, in their home countries or elsewhere."

"We value having international students in our graduate program because they enrich the teaching and learning experience for all of us, instructors and students," he added. "They bring a breadth of case studies to discussions that otherwise would be lacking."

One of those international students is Yaw Ansah of Ghana, who is earning two degrees simultaneously (a doctoral degree in fish and wildlife conservation and a master of science in agricultural and applied economics) at VT.

Ansah, who completed his undergraduate degree in Ghana, came to VT because of a collaborative project between his Ghanaian school and VT to assess the quality of streams that receive outflow from Ghana's earthen fish ponds. He is interested in international development, global food security and aquaculture.

At VT, "I have had the opportunity to take several courses in natural resources management and conservation, and in international development and agriculture," he said. Ultimately, "I see myself at the forefront of efforts to ensure global food security and international development. I would also like to be heavily involved in teaching and research in these fields in my native Ghana."

Peter Laver, from South Africa, earned his master of science degree at VT and is pursuing a doctoral degree there, as well. He cited the strong reputation of VT's fish and wildlife conservation program as a compelling reason to enroll, and said he enjoyed his interactions with faculty in the department.

"Professors are friendly and helpful, as are fellow graduate students," Laver said. "The level of collegiality in the fish and wildlife conservation program is good, and there is a strong sense of community in the department."

"I am studying the general ecology of banded mongooses and their disease ecology, as it relates to a novel tuberculosis pathogen in northern Botswana," he explained. After graduation, he plans to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship and find a position at a research-oriented university.

Laver's research interests are spatial ecology, disease ecology, human-wildlife conflict, and behavioral endocrinology. VT's fish and wildlife conservation program has allowed him to be involved with teaching and collaborating on a wide range of research projects.

VT's campus -- located in Blacksburg, Virginia, a mountainous area much admired for its beauty -- enhances the academic experience, according to many students. Laver praised the school's cultural amenities and scenic attractions.

"VT has a broad range of societies and extracurricular activities," he said. "The performing arts at VT are particularly good, and I regularly attend productions, recitals and concerts. The town of Blacksburg is dynamic and progressive and extremely welcoming to the international body of students. It is simply a great place to live. The surrounding area provides ample opportunities for recreation in the form of hiking, backpacking, canoeing, photography and bird watching."

And VT's faculty members, recognized as leaders in their respective disciplines, reflect the same international spirit as the school's student body.

For example, VT wildlife experts were recently invited to Bhutan to study the country's vast biodiversity, particularly its elusive and endangered big cats, while VT associate professor Kathleen Alexander -- a wildlife ecologist and veterinarian -- visits Botswana twice a year to carry out research projects.

Hallerman traveled to China in 2011 to study that country's declining population of freshwater mussels. What does he most enjoy as head of VT's fish and wildlife conservation department? "I am able to provide leadership to guide this program on a course of continuous improvement, fostering cutting-edge research and its incorporation into graduate and undergraduate training," he said. "I am able to assemble resources to realize opportunities for students to grow into young professionals. And I still have some limited time for my own research and teaching."

More information on international education opportunities is available on the website of the Institute of International Education.

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