Through study abroad programs, Oberlin students can be found in almost all corners of the globe. Fourth-year Shavonne Stanek’s study away in spring 2015 took her 8,000 miles from campus to Zanzibar Island, where she conducted field research on the local fishing industry while participating in a program sponsored by the School for International Training (SIT).
An environmental studies major and chemistry minor, Stanek’s research was an in-depth anthropological study of the male-dominated fishing community. The archipelago is known for its stunning beaches and production of spices, but an increasing population threatens the sustainability of available fish stock. She became conversational in Swahili and overcame cultural barriers to survey fisherman on their awareness of the environmental impact of overfishing.
Stanek’s project earned the Undergraduate Research Award from the Forum on Education Abroad. She is one of two winners selected among 54 nominations.
“In Zanzibar, it is often hard for foreign women to be accepted, especially in male-dominated fields such as fishing, but Shavonne, with the help of her newly learned Swahili conversation skills, was able to communicate with fisherman and earn their respect,” says Helen Peeks, former academic director of the SIT’s Tanzania-Zanzibar Coastal and Ecological Management Program. “She will be remembered in the village for her use of Swahili, cultural sensitivity, and professional, academic approach.”
Stanek, who is from Springboro, Ohio, says her project was borne from a basic lack of information on local fishing practices in the region. “One of the SIT professors in Zanzibar originally suggested just looking at the drying of sardines in the area, but I wanted to investigate a more broad topic of sustainable fishing practices.”
She conducted interviews with fisherman and drying processors in the village of Mangapwani on the Tanzanian island of Unguja (more commonly known as Zanzibar Island). The interviews focused on their work in the local fishing industry, the amount of fish caught and dried, and their opinions on the sustainability of their industry.
Her survey found that the dryers and local fishermen were aware of some environmental impact resulting from the fishing industry. However, the dryers were more concerned with producing a marketable product and earning a daily wage, and the fishermen were more concerned about bringing as much fish home as possible. Both the dryers and the fishermen appeared to be more concerned with their current economic status than about the future ecological implications of their involvement in the industry.
If left unchecked, the overuse of natural resources will eventually lead to the collapse of the fishing industry in Mangapwani and other such small villages if not better regulated.
Stanek says the interviews were challenging because the fisherman typically wouldn’t cooperate and didn’t take her seriously, and she felt disrespected. “I often walked away from a day of interviewing with five to 10 new marriage proposals. I also found it hard to get some of the fishermen to sit down and have a conversation with me because I would try to catch them before they went out to work and they would be too busy, or I would wake up really early and catch them right when they arrived home, and they would be too tired to talk.”
Despite those difficulties, she completed 99 interviews, and she says she enjoyed interacting with her research subjects. “I have done science research before where I am sitting in a lab analyzing samples, but this research allowed me to interact more with a community, which I loved. This project reaffirmed my desire to pursue a career in resource management.”
At Oberlin, Stanek has played on the varsity volleyball team, and she is a member of the Resource Conservation Team, which works to increase composting, recycling, and other sustainable practices on campus. She is also involved in the annual Ecolympics competition.
She will present her research in April at the Forum on Education’s conference in Atlanta. “Personally, this award is such an honor and it makes me feel that what I am doing in and outside of the classroom is important and that people are recognizing that. It gives me the opportunity to present my research and meet amazing people at the conference in April, to network, and hopefully open many doors for the future.”