Wellesley College Tanner Conference Celebrates a World of Learning Oct. 28

October 23, 2008

Molly Tarantino, Public Affairs

WELLESLEY, Mass. — Wellesley College senior Sophie Feather-Garner learned an important lesson about savanna life during the first lecture of her semester abroad in South Africa: If an ostrich is chasing you, lie flat on the ground, but when a rhino charges you, climb a tree.

Wellesley senior Sophie Feather-Garner worked with mammals at the Organization for Tropical Studies in South Africa

Working with the Organization for Tropical Studies in South Africa, she undertook research projects examining how elephant overpopulation affected dung beetle diversity and explored the economic value of river conversation. She also looked at the effects of seed-eating small mammals on the African savanna ecosystem and aimed to answer questions such as, “What species are the most prevalent seed predators?” and “Which seeds are the tastiest to them?” In addition to reading and analyzing data, she sorted through thousands of smelly dung beetles by candlelight, performed taxidermy on a mouse and tracked an elephant through the forest to collect fresh droppings.

Feather-Garner will discuss her research in the presentation, “Tough Nuts to Crack: Seed-Hungry Mammals in an African Savanna,” at the annual Tanner Conference on the Wellesley College campus, a day-long event held in several locations on Tuesday, Oct. 28.

“The perspective I gained from my unconventional study abroad is far more complex than that of a safari tourist,” she said. “I've explored the intricacies and ever-shifting balance of an ecosystem, from the mammoth mammals to the soil composition. I've seen the progress being made from within by small groups of citizens working for their country's health, wildlife and children. I've become friends with young South Africans who, though their lives are quite different from mine, share the same concern for the earth's future and commitment to sustainability.”

The Tanner Conference will bring together students, faculty, staff and alumnae as they share their off-campus studies. With projects ranging from “A Mosaic of Morocco: Life as a Nomad” to “Victim or Victimizer? The 2008 London Extradition Case of 1994 Rwandan Genocide,” Wellesley travelers return to discuss their experiences with the community. The conference is free and open to the public.

Another Tanner presenter, senior Kacie Kocher, followed up a semester abroad in Morocco with a four-week nomadic exploration of the country— collecting tiles in 13 sites, from remote villages to urban centers to create a mosaic representation of Moroccan migration.  

“I really got the chance to experience Morocco as a Moroccan, through living with my family, and as a foreign student trying to make sense of the world through my own creative means,” she said. “Although my mosaic is not very aesthetically appealing and is cracked, the adventure I had lives in the forefront on my memories and truly affects my daily life and the decisions I make for my future.”

Tanner presenter Sheri Stewart worked as a law clerk at a criminal defense firm in London, where she was assigned to an extradition case regarding the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The Wellesley senior had to learn to separate her personal feelings from her job.

“My greatest challenge was to put my personal values aside in the interest of impartial justice and to defend a man I did not believe deserved to be helped after all the pain he had inflicted,” she said.

Presenter Katie Bunten-Wren ’09 spent a semester studying the self-esteem and self-perceptions of adolescent girls in the north-Kenyan refugee camp of Kakuma. She witnessed first-hand the obstacles faced by young women growing up in the camp, including sub-standard living conditions and the fear of being sold into an arranged marriage before finishing school.

But despite such disheartening realities, Bunten-Wren was encouraged by the girls she worked with at the Angelina Jolie Girls’ Boarding School outside Kakuma. “The young women at this school had dreams of becoming doctors and politicians that would bring peace to their home country,” she said.

Upon returning from Kenya, Bunten-Wren found she had a new perspective on her studies at Wellesley. She switched from a psychology major with plans to attend medical school to a peace and justice studies major with a focus on development in Africa. “My time in Kakuma taught me a lot and changed my life,” she said.

This year’s conference represents the work of nearly 300 students, faculty, alumnae and staff. The annual event was established in 2001 through the generosity of Wellesley trustee Estelle “Nicki” Newman Tanner ‘57. For more information, visit http://new.wellesley.edu/CWS/Tanner/.

Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 68 countries. For more information, go to www.wellesley.edu.