Katie Hearther's future adventure
Recent graduate from the school of Oceanography, Katie Hearther will be setting out for eight months of travel. Katie has been awarded the Bonderman fellowship which supports UW students traveling after completing their degree. This fellowship allows independent travel around the world that will be funded for eight months, and requires visiting two continents and six countries.
--Interview August 2020 by Lauren Bayne, UW Oceanography class of 2022
Receiving this incredible experience means you had an outstanding application process. What did this look like for you and what special topics did you discuss in your essay? Do you have any advice for future applicants going through the process?
The application for the Bonderman fellowship is amazingly vague and unlike any other application I’ve completed. Unlike job or scholarship applications, there is no company to research or position description to tailor your cover letter to. Instead, you must create and submit your basic itinerary (with tentative dates) and craft a deeply personal essay. For future applicants, I highly recommend you do some soul searching as to why you want to undertake this experience. Be able to articulate why you want to pursue solo travel for such an extended period of time. I also recommend listing the ways such an experience would challenge you and fit in with your life goals. I personally discussed how my military background filled my childhood with domestic travel, but all of it was planned and mandated by the Navy. While this prepared me to navigate strange places and new people, it was very structured. I discussed how I currently thrive on structure, clear requirements, and long-term plans, and how the Bonderman fellowship would push me to my limits by eliminating all of the comfort and familiarity I’ve become accustomed to.
Describe your planned itinerary for your travels! What captivated you to choose these places? Which cultures are you going to immerse yourself in? How will you spend your time at each destination?
My itinerary is still tentative but my plans include Greenland, Iceland, Patagonia, Chile, Indonesia, East Timor, Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa. I wanted to explore countries where land ice is melting and contributing to global sea level rise, as well as low-lying tropical countries that are then endangered by that very ice melting. I want to learn from the communities endangered by these changes, as well as explore their resilience, and explore regions attempting to implement ecotourism. I think it would be very interesting to observe the attitudes of visitors, locals, and brokers of the tourism industry and see how these communities balance conservation with economic development. The fun thing about the Bonderman is they encourage you not to have too many specific plans, so I’m not certain how my time will exactly be spent. However, I definitely plan to explore the beautiful ecosystems, with local (as opposed to commercial) guidance wherever possible. Wherever I go, I want my visit to be a two-way street. I want to learn from the people living in the locations I visit but I hope they also learn from me. I very much want to talk to as many people as possible to get an understanding of the local perspective on climate change, if there is one. I hope to bring these perspectives back to the industrialized world and share them with those who may not ever be exposed to those whose livelihoods are threatened. I also want to take some time just sitting back and observing, and forcing myself to just exist with no other motive!
How do you feel about setting out and traveling solo for eight months? Which destination are you most stoked to travel to and which destinations make you the most anxious?
That’s easy, I’m absolutely terrified! I’ll be traveling with very limited access to the support systems I’ve grown to rely on. At the same time, I am very interested to see what kind of person I become at the end of all this. I truly think this experience will shatter, and then build up and solidify, my mental resilience. I am most stoked to visit Indonesia and East Timor. They have a rocky history with each other! Indonesia is actually one of the top five emitters globally due to the intentional burning of their rainforests, and East Timor gained their independence very recently and are attempting to build their tourism industry. They are located in the Coral Triangle, which is likely the area of the ocean with the highest biodiversity. Selfishly, I am most excited to go there and experience what coral reefs and tropical marine ecosystems looked like in their prime. My home, Oahu, still has gorgeous reefs but they are very obviously degraded and bleached. None of the destinations make me more anxious than others, but I am incredibly nervous about the impact of my travel. I am doing research to try and ensure that my travel leaves only positive impacts on the communities I visit, and trying to figure out how I can use my privilege to amplify the voices of those I encounter.
Traveling to and from each place is part of the journey, how are you planning to reach each destination? Do you have accommodations lined up for when you get there or do you want to figure out the details on the spot?
Currently, there is absolutely zero plan. I expect that many airlines, hostels, and other tourism services may go bankrupt and disappear by the time it is safe for me to travel. A main goal of mine is to try and reduce my emissions while traveling as much as possible. Unfortunately, it will probably be impossible for me to travel to certain places without flying but I am also exploring boats, buses, and other public transportation. The recommendation I have received from past fellows is to only have accommodations lined up for the first 3-5 nights I am at a new destination. They explained that usually you make friends and discover new places you want to visit, and this makes it easier to change plans quickly. I will likely follow this advice to give myself the flexibility to go to unplanned destinations without having to cancel or transfer too many reservations. This too, is terrifying because I’m used to rigid, pre-planned itineraries with not a lot of flexibility!
Hearing you received this fellowship, how did that change your plans after graduating? How do you want this journey to change your life and what do you hope to gain from the experiences?
Everything changed! I had already planned to take a year to work and explore graduate school options, but then COVID-19 threw a wrench in those plans as well. Now, I’m in a bit of a holding pattern until the fellowship team determines travel to be safe again. Right now I’m currently just trying to work and save money, but I'm still exploring graduate school in case it's several years before I can travel. I also have a feeling that this experience will cause a shift in my values and interests, so I don’t really want to attempt to start a career until after the conclusion of the fellowship. I want this journey to strengthen me mentally and expand my worldview beyond the narrow focus I currently have. I want to learn to be comfortable with existing with very minimal plans and structure, and build my own resilience by learning from others. Truthfully though, I’m not sure exactly what will impact me the most or how I’ll be changed. All I know is that I’ll be a different person when I finish :)
How will you incorporate oceanography into your travel? When you return, in what way will you utilize what you have learned and experienced to aid the world?
My entire itinerary and plan is based on learning how to integrate science, policy, and communities by observing people in other countries. My ultimate goal is to use what I learn to improve communication of ocean and climate science to industrialized governments and communities. I already have a relatively extensive science background, so I am excited to see how that science and the environment affect the lives of the people I meet, and see what their perception of nature is. If nature inspires strong feelings I want to learn how others express those feelings, be they love or grief. I also have been stuck in viewing the world through an environmental science lens for most of my adult life. I think it will be interesting and scary to focus on people instead (animals are easier!), but hope to acquire a renewed passion that allows me to return from my travels to take on the challenges facing the earth and all its inhabitants.