Naturalists without borders

Paulson International Study Fellowships encourage students to engage with nature during their semesters abroad.

Annie Zhang trims a branch from a tree.
Image credit: Annie Zhang ’25
Author  E.B. Bartels ’10; Aidan Reid ’24
Published on 

The first time Annie Zhang ’25 made her way to the OxGrow Community Garden in Oxford, England, she took a wrong turn, had to slog through two rain-soaked athletics fields, and showed up for her volunteer session covered in mud. But no matter—the whole point of Zhang volunteering was to get dirty. She spent that Sunday afternoon helping prepare the garden plot for winter by cleaning out a greenhouse and pruning apple trees.

Zhang volunteered at OxGrow in fall 2023 as part of her Paulson International Study Fellowship. Wellesley launched the fellowship program in spring 2023 as an extension of the Paulson Ecology of Place Initiative, which connects people to nature and place on campus. Since then, between eight and 14 fellows per semester have worked all over the globe, from central London to remote stretches of Patagonia. In spring 2024, they went to Singapore, South Africa, France, Brazil, Denmark, Italy, Jordan, and Germany. The fellowship encourages students to look for connections to the natural world no matter where they are.

“Working with the soil was so satisfying, especially after a long week cooped up in the college libraries,” Zhang wrote on the fellows’ blog about her experiences in the U.K. “The task of preparing the garden for the changing seasons made me feel more connected to nature, like I was actually a part of the ecosystem rather than an interloper just passing through.”

Working with the soil was so satisfying, especially after a long week cooped up in the college libraries.

Annie Zhang ’25

Learning about ecosystems at Wellesley has been a very meaningful part of her college experience, she says, and one she hoped to replicate while she was away. “I wanted to bring the same approach to my semester abroad and build a stronger sense of place in my host country through interacting with the natural world,” says Zhang, who also served as a 2023–2024 Paulson Initiative intern. “Participating in this fellowship pushed me to seek out nature and environmentally oriented opportunities that I might not have otherwise, which I think led me to experience a different side of my study abroad destination.”

That kind of curiosity is what Suzanne Langridge, director of the Paulson Initiative, hopes the fellowship will spark in students. “By providing a few tools and resources to observe nature closely, consider their host community environment, and engage in community projects, they have returned to Wellesley having created deeper connections through this experience,” she says.

Lilia Bickson ’25, also a fall 2023 fellow and a 2023-2024 intern, took the Paulson lens to Taipei, Taiwan, where she collaborated with the local nonprofit iPower at its site in Laomei, one of the northernmost points on the island. “iPower is dedicated to providing educational resources to youth and their families in rural parts of the North Coast community,” Bickson wrote in her blog entry, “and we got to meet the founder and a few youth leaders for a day of gardening, cultural and language exchange, cooking, and everything in between.”

At iPower, Bickson learned how to make a passionfruit coral seaweed jelly. “The real seaweed jelly is collected from the seas by experienced aunties and then processed until clear, but because of changes in ocean environments and the tonnes of trash that pollute Taiwan’s beaches, it’s getting harder and harder to harvest real seaweed,” she wrote. “Following our snacking session, we took bags, gloves, tongs, and headphones and headed up to the beach for a cleanup and silent disco session. I opted to listen to the waves instead, letting the bittersweet lessons of the day wash over me.”

Spiderwebs (left) by Annie Zhang ’25. Peafowl by Lilia Bickson ’25.

In addition to posting regularly on the blog, fellows are required to put together a final project. For hers, Zhang compiled recipes made with orchard fruits that she had learned from locals in Oxford and illustrated a cookbook that highlighted some of her favorites.

“It’s this spirit of local produce, sharing in abundance, meeting new people and making connections, and finding a community through nature that I hope to carry forward with me on my way home,” Zhang wrote about her project. “Like a really good recipe for apple buns, the lessons I learned and memories I made this term are something that I will return to over and over again.”.

Bickson’s project was writing a poem in English and Mandarin, reflecting on the seascape of Taipei. It begins with these words: “white cloud veils black night 白云遮住黑夜/eyes peeking through portholes catch your form for a brief moment 眼睛透过舷窗偷看你的形式/embarking worlds away or down the lane 旅行到远的世界或往者路.”

Zhang and Bickson say they especially enjoyed the monthly “global gatherings” on Zoom for Paulson fellows all over the world. Through these virtual meetings, “I got to connect to Wellesley while being away,” says Bickson, “as well as share my struggles and triumphs that I encountered during my time abroad.”

Langridge stresses that the international fellowships are open to all Wellesley students, regardless of major. “Students don’t need to have a focus on the environment in their major or their study abroad program,” she says. Wellesley students may apply for a study abroad program anywhere in the world that interests them, then apply to be a Paulson International Study Fellow after being accepted.

The only requirement is to be open to the three pillars of the fellowship: engage, build, and share. Fellows must engage with the environment of their location abroad and observe both the culture and nature. They need to build meaningful connections to their community by participating in work centered around nature and sustainability, such as by joining a student organization, or volunteering with a nongovernmental organization or a community garden. And, finally, they must share takeaways of their experiences with others––for example, Bickson, Zhang, and a third fellow, Jada Onwuta ’24, who studied in Cyprus, presented their final projects at the Ruhlman Conference in April 2024.

These three tenets encourage fellows to be more present while they are abroad. “Many students at Wellesley are not in the practice of slowing down. The imperative to do more, add more, is always present,” says Katie Saibara, assistant director of the Office of International Study. “I am proud that this fellowship encourages students to be intentional about pausing and reflecting—practices that they will carry forward.”

“The last late summer blackberries were still clinging to the roadside brambles when I arrived in Oxford this September. Apple season has come and gone; I’ve planted bulbs that I’ll only see blooming through a computer screen,” Zhang wrote in her final blog post. “Now that I’m back in the sunny auto suburbs of my California hometown, I find myself reminiscing about Oxford’s narrow alleys and the way the sunset light fell on the weathered stone as I walked home with my groceries. It has been a privilege to experience the changing seasons in a city with so much history, where for centuries so much has stayed the same.”

To learn more about the experiences of the Paulson International Study Fellows, read their blog entries.

If you are planning to study abroad in spring 2025 and are interested in applying for a Paulson International Study Fellowship, look for more information later this summer. Applications are due in October.