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Ormewood Park Teen Bridges Cultures, Worlds through Oceanic Research

Mei-Jing Bernard. PHOTO CREDIT: Special
Mei-Jing Bernard. PHOTO CREDIT: Special
Editor's note: Mei-Jing Bernard, an Ormewood Park resident and a home schooled student, was one of 15 North American pupils selected from more than 400 applicants to participate in the 2013 Ocean for Life program at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in June and early July. Additionally, 15 other students were picked by the GLOBE program in the Greater Middle East from Qatar, Lebanon, Pakistan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Oman.  

by Mei-Jing Bernard

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — On my plane ride to California I was incredibly excited to meet all of the new students both from the U.S. and from the Middle East, but I was slightly nervous about the large cultural differences that I would encounter, not to mention that there might be a language barrier.

However, after bonding with Ayyad from Lebanon with a conversation about his 34-hour flight to the US and sitting in a circle after dinner playing ice breaker games, it felt like we were already old friends. Over the course of the program we taught each other new words and songs from our languages. Lana and Haneen, both from Qatar, taught a bunch of the girls how to belly dance during our stay on Santa Cruz island. Later on in the week I spent a lot of time talking about religion with Ghazi from Saudi Arabia and Fiona from Chicago. Two weeks may not seem like a very long time to get to know 29 other people, but by the end of the program I felt like I was part of a giant, loud, laughing family. Nakoa from Hawai'i taught us that "ohana" translates as "family," which means that no one gets left behind. We are now the OFL 2013 Ohana.

The 2013 field study was hosted by the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and the University of California-Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. We were able to participate in a large variety of activities throughout the two-week field study, including snorkeling, kayaking, hiking, water quality monitoring and oceanography. We also learned about a range of environmental topics, such as climate change, ocean acidification, kelp forest ecosystems, and the marine life of the Santa Barbara Channel as well as the different cultures and backgrounds of our fellow campers.

The activities we participated in focused on ocean science and exploration, stewardship activities, cultural exchanges and youth media projects. Our media projects were mentored by staff from Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society Media Camp and American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking. My media camp mentor was Tony Azios and the other adult chaperone for my group was Corinne Jabbour from Lebanon. During media camp we were broken into 4 groups and each group had one of the four topics: Sense Of Place, Ocean Conservation, Cultural Understanding, and Interconnectedness.

My group's topic was the final one. Throughout the week we used the cameras that we had been given to document our field experiences through both still photography and video. I had so much fun working on the project, and now my group's video, which was posted on Youtube, has over 1,000 views!

When I first applied to the OFL program I had to fill out a survey which featured a question with two circles. One circle was labeled "you" and the other was labeled "ocean," and you had to pick the picture that showed how connected you felt with the ocean. I picked the overlapping circles that shared a bit more than half of their surfaces. I would now choose the circles that almost line up, one on top of the other, so that virtually everything is shared. Originally, I thought that my geographic distance from the coast made me less connected to the ocean.

Yes, I knew the point about how every one of your actions can affect someone else, but I don't think it really clicked until I got to Ocean for Life. We learned about how all of the bodies of water that we name separately are really just part of one giant ocean. We are inextricably linked whether we want to be or not. We must take responsibility for the mistakes we have made, and take action right them, so that we can all have the ocean to enjoy for centuries to come.

While at Ocean for Life I got to do some things that I never would have been able to do in Atlanta, things like snorkeling in a kelp forest, picking up starfish from the bottom of the ocean that were larger than a dinner plate, kayaking in the ocean, and making 15 new friends from the Middle East. I am so grateful to Ocean for Life and people such as Claire Fackler, our fearless program leader, all of the media camp mentors, the additional adult chaperones and, of course, our sponsors who made the program possible. Ocean for Life will stay with me for a lifetime.

Ocean for Life is a unique program that brings together Middle Eastern and North American high school students of diverse cultures and backgrounds to study marine science, and in the course of that, break down stereotypes and strengthen global relationships.  The premise is simple but powerful: we are all connected by the ocean, and by studying the ocean, we can learn about improving stewardship of the planet and ourselves: one world, one ocean.

Chris Murphy July 21, 2013 at 08:25 AM
Thanks for being such a great ambassador from Atlanta, Mei-Jing! Good luck to you on your future endeavors.

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