UR students on summer fellowships

Summer treks

September 4, 2023

Student Experience

As students recently returned to campus, some will have exciting tales to tell, because of the support of a University of Richmond Summer Fellowship program.

Students submit proposals for their research and can receive up to a $5,000 URSF grant to read, think, explore deeply, and then write a research paper about their out-of-classroom experience. They receive support from a faculty advisor.

“The summer fellowships help students make connections between what they are learning in the classroom and their career interests and future academic pursuits,” said Brendan Halligan, senior associate director of experiential learning, exploration, & assessment for alumni and career services.

More than 500 students took part in a URSF program. Here are just three of their stories.

Heading for the hills

In Point Pleasant, West Virginia, a 10-foot creature with red eyes and moth wings is said to fly over town to warn people of impending doom — including a bridge collapse that claimed 46 lives. Evelyn Zelmer grew up listening to rich mountain folklore like the Mothman, even visiting its statue.

“There is this sense of environmental haunting we feel, at least in Appalachia, that is difficult to quantify,” said Zelmer, a junior who hails from eastern Ohio, on the western edge of Appalachia.

This summer, she began a three-part journey to explore mountain tales and other cultural storytelling. Mary Finley-Brook, a professor of geography and the environment, serves as faculty advisor for Zelmer’s project, “Looking Above the Earth: A Folkloric Comparison of 3 Mountain Landscapes.”

Zelmer’s project also explores the human impact of mining and energy development. She researched myths, delved into local archives, and spoke to community members about the history of energy production in Eastern Tennessee, including the development of the atomic bomb in nearby Oak Ridge. There, the government forced the residents of five small farming communities to move to create the Manhattan Project site.

In July, she traveled to Dunedin, New Zealand, where she is spending the fall semester at the University of Otago. Her courses focus on New Zealand archaeology, Māori heritage management, and resource use. She plans to go on archaeological excavations and visit the gold mines in Otago.

The final leg of her journey will bring her to Nepal for the spring semester. She will trek the Himalayas to visit monasteries, Buddhist temples, and regenerating forests. Her studies will include the Yeti, Tibetan religion, physical isolation, the enchantment of danger and adventure tourism, and the relationship between development and climate.

Zelmer, who is a Richmond Scholar, has never traveled outside the U.S. before. She got her passport through the Office of International Education just last semester.

“I do not have the same resources as a lot of my peers,” she said, “so this USRF funding is invaluable, and I am eternally grateful.”

Exploring giant kelp

Environmental humanities major Alan DeClerck grew up in Ojai, California, near some of the state’s giant kelp forests. This summer he researched and explored giant kelp, found in dense patches along the West Coast of the U.S.

He said he jumped at the chance to find new ways of thinking about an environment that fascinated him throughout his life. His research project is “Ocean Environments as Sites of Estranging Knowledge,” with sociology and anthropology professor Miguel Diaz-Barriga advising.

DeClerck observed the kelp forest through his own experiences while walking on the beach and kayaking, reading the work of scholars, as well as popular works such as the documentary My Octopus Teacher, Nnedi Okorafor's novel Lagoon, and the animated film Nimona.

Some of his work involved the nature of observation itself.

“I am learning that regular walks on the coast, and taking notes and photos of what I observe on my phone or in a notebook are just as revelatory and experiential as diving or dissecting specimens could be,” DeClerck said.

He enjoyed the opportunity to walk, read, and think without the pressure of deadlines or grades. DeClerck, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in cultural studies, hopes to publish his findings.

“What I learned this summer is that how we access and experience the kelp forest is largely dependent on context,” he said. “Who, where, and what we are impacts how we understand it.”

 In it for the long haul

Geography student Elena Durazo traversed the Colorado Trail as part of her summer project, “Investigating the Wild Western Landscape: Topogeny, Identity, and Geographies of Mobility on the Colorado Trail.” Journalism professor Don Belt is her faculty advisor.

She previously backpacked the 100-mile Wonderland Trail in Mount Rainier National Park, Washington, and the 300-mile John Muir Trail in California. With the 500-mile Colorado Trail, “we just keep going bigger,” she said, with laugh, by phone from mile 140 of the trip.

The Spider junior, who is originally from Arizona, is documenting her journey with multimedia dispatches, including visuals of the scenery and wildlife as well as interviews with fellow hikers. On the trail, she’s meeting people from all over the world.

“Everybody has an interesting reason for being out here,” she said. "There are people living unconventional lives.”

While many associate thru-hikes with rugged individualism, she finds in them more of a communal culture.

“When you are so vulnerable, when you're living outside and you've removed so many barriers of protection that you have in the outside world, you feel sort of like radical interdependence on other people and the land,” she said.

Her project is inspired by a reporting method Belt calls slow journalism, with its focus on high quality, meaningful stories, and critical geography, which is centered around concepts such as social justice and freedom.

Much of the trail’s elevation is about 11,000 feet, with exposed areas that can be hazardous during thunderstorms.

Having completed her journey in August, Durazo is spending her junior year abroad, first in Nepal and then Tanzania.

“Part of the whole thing is that it's hard to predict how things are going to go,” she said. “You go to bed in a place completely different from where you wake up. That's also kind of the fun part.”