BRUNSWICK, Maine — The first time Teona Williams went camping with Bowdoin College’s Outing Club, she just didn’t get it. It was cold. The shelter was primitive. There were no bathrooms.
“I was just like, ‘What is this?’” said Williams, a Washington, D.C., native who on Saturday will graduate from Bowdoin. “I was thinking, ‘Why do people do this? This just isn’t fun for me. I don’t see why this is fun for anybody.’”
Most any college graduate will tell you a lot can change in four years and Williams is no exception. When she arrived in Brunswick, her primary experience with nature was volunteering in a park in Washington during high school. Now that she’s preparing to leave Brunswick, her love for nature has taken root so deeply that she’s embarking on a yearlong odyssey around the world to study why people who live in beautiful natural settings don’t take advantage of what’s around them.
“My sense now is that the whole idea of canoeing and kayaking and other kinds of outdoor recreation is a sort of western thing,” said Williams, 21. “Of course, that’s what I’m going to have to test during my trip.”
The realization that people in other parts of the world interact with nature differently struck Williams during her junior year when she spent a semester studying in Kenya. She had gone snorkeling for her first time and began to recount the experience to her Kenyan host mother.
“I was really excited, but it was just something that wasn’t part of her everyday experience,” said Williams. “She was like, ‘Why would you do that? Why would you want to look at fish or something?’ She just didn’t seem to care about it.”
Williams, who has earned a bachelor’s degree in history and environmental studies with a minor in Africana studies, began to wonder if that utilitarian attitude toward nature existed elsewhere. Gradually, the question turned into an idea, which eventually turned into an application for a $25,000 Watson Fellowship, which gives talented graduating seniors money and a mandate to not step foot in the United States for a year. Beginning Aug. 1, Williams will start an odyssey that includes India, South Africa, Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Brazil.
While many of those countries are in various stages of environmental justice programs such as sprucing up neighborhoods, eradicating pollution and producing clean drinking water, Williams said she is fascinated with the concept of people living in a beautiful natural environment where tourists flock from around the world and yet having no recreational desire to hike a mountain, go diving or set out in a canoe.
It wasn’t too long ago that Williams felt the same way, particularly about a canoe. It was during her sophomore year that she and a fellow student from New York City were paddling to Merritt Island in the New Meadows River, which is in Sagadahoc County. It was part of a Bowdoin program called Out of the Zone Leadership Training, designed to bring people from diverse backgrounds into nature.
“We were both thinking that we were going to flip over, that we were going to fall into this water and that was going to be it for us,” said Williams, who is one of 450 students graduating Saturday during the college’s 207th commencement. “But we made it. We both just got out of the boat and looked at each other like, ‘Wow, we just accomplished something.’ We looked out at the water, this treacherous thing, but it was also beautiful, and thought, ‘We did that.’ It was an incredible feeling. It was like a high.”
During her fellowship tour, Williams will study how other cultures view the world around them, blogging about it the whole way, with an emphasis on studying whether western attitudes about outdoor recreation have transferred to countries that have experienced colonialism. Next summer, Williams will present her findings during a Watson Fellowship conference at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. After that, she intends to go to graduate school to continue her environmental studies, perhaps with a concentration in international relations.
But she hopes to gain something else from her trip around the world which won’t be as easy to quantify.
“I’m hoping this will allow me to make deeper connections with people,” she said. “What I’m really hoping is that I’ll meet different people who will have a big impact on my life, and vice versa. Most important for me is those social connections.”