Community Engagement hosts first Alternative Spring Break Trip

Post created by Jennifer Sharma:

Let me begin by indulging in one of my favorite activities – quoting the Harvey Mudd College Mission Statement. “Harvey Mudd College seeks to educate engineers, mathematicians, and scientists well versed in all of those areas as well as the humanities and social sciences so that they may assume leadership in their fields with a clear understanding of the impact of their work on society.”

Whew! That’s quite a mouthful. I say that quoting the mission statement is one of my favorite activities because for three years, I worked as a tour guide for the HMC Office of Admission and recited that statement to tell countless prospective students and their families about the core tenets of Mudd:

  • Our students are all really great at math and science
  • They also pursue classes in humanities, social sciences, and the arts
  • We encourage students to be leaders
  • We hope that students understand the impact of their work on the society they live in

brianIt’s the last point that the Alternative Spring Break Community Engagement trip really brought home for me. When I first saw the director of Community Engagement’s email to the student body about the possible trips, I realized that while I’m a student taking various classes and while I hold student leadership roles, I don’t often consciously think about taking time to help my community. Even though it’s a part of the mission statement I cherish, there are always excuses like “I have too much homework”, “I need more sleep”, “I’d rather be doing ___” that get in the way.

Well, over Spring Break there are no excuses! There were seven of us who went to on the trip to the Santa Rosa Plateau to help maintain this amazing ecological reserve, and we had a blast exploring nature, making new(t) friends, and of course, serving our community.

We left bright and early on a Saturday morning and piled into Franklin, our trusty van from the Dean of Students Office. Since most of us had just finished busy weeks, we slept through most of the ride to the plateau… but once we got there, we were floored. To give you some context, Harvey Mudd is located in the small town of Claremont, and while we have parks, lawns, and open spaces, there’s nothing that can quite compare with the gorgeous view of hills and valleys, mostly untouched by buildings, that the plateau offers.

We spent most of our morning completing a population survey of the rare (and adorable!) California newt, Taricha torosa torosa. These newt populations live in pools along a river which runs through the plateau, and are a species of concern. Our own survey seemed to indicate that the populations were much smaller than in previous years – we saw few adult newts, no juvenile newts, and very few of the cloudy clumps of newt eggs known as “egg masses” which we would have expected to see during breeding season.

However, we did enjoy crossing from pool to pool, looking for newts, and we managed to get quite a few spectacular photos! My personal favorite was the first newt the student group found on our own – Brian, our director and guide, had spotted two earlier, but we met a friendly and photogenic newt in one of our first individual pools.

Who said newts aren't cute? Just look at those chubby little arms!

Who said newts aren’t cute? Just look at those chubby little arms!

The newt survey was fun for a lot of reasons – all of us students are scientists, and we enjoy the process of collecting data and observing, but we also got to know each other better. Our group had two seniors, one junior, two sophomores, and two freshmen, and while some of us had known each other beforehand, none of us knew every other person in the group. We learned about Kevin’s penchant for climbing, Cleo’s emotional reaction to newts, and more as we spent the day with each other, and we had a blast.

Our afternoon was spent walking through the plateau and enjoying the scenery. One of my favorite parts of the trip was our time spent at the vernal pools – these are pools that only exist certain places in the world, and are only filled during the springtime (hence the “vernal” in the name!) At the Plateau, there’s a wooden platform extending partway into the pools so that you can sit and be surrounded by peaceful water, interesting plants, and the garter snakes who were swimming all around us and sunning themselves. Brian told us that the pools are often teeming with shrimp – in fact, the shrimp are dormant for thousands of years, and only a few of them come alive every season when the pools are filled. This was just one more interesting part of nature we learned about during our trip!

We spent the evening and night napping and enjoying good food and great company in Temecula. Our highlights included getting “wilderness survival tips” via text message from the Assistant Dean for Residential Life, eating “cold smores” (just smush the chocolate between two graham crackers and you’re good to go!), and taking pictures as more and more of us fell asleep after our long day.

Our last half day at the Plateau involved clearing a trail of non-native grasses. We were equipped with sharp eyes, spades to handle any tough knots of grass, and large plastic bags to collect the removed grass. Although it was hard work, it was rewarding to walk back along the trail once we were finished and see the results of what we had spent our time doing.

alt spbAll in all, our community engagement trip was a fun way to meet people, give back to our community, and learn more about really interesting areas of biology which are unique to the Santa Rosa Plateau. We spent a lot of time hiking and being outdoors in a truly beautiful part of Southern California – something anyone would appreciate on Spring Break! At the end of our trip, we made our way back to Mudd, showered, and then met up for dinner in the village of Claremont.

So, this Spring Break I learned a lot about newts, made new friends, and helped maintain an ecological reserve with very unique properties. Can you say the same? I’m guessing not – so you should consider spending your next break on an Office of Community Engagement trip!

To end, I’ll include one of my favorite “wilderness survival tips” from Dean Michael Edwards, the Assistant Dean for Residential Life (ADRL). *Disclaimer: All of these were meant as a joke, and ADRL does not think that any of them should actually be followed if you, say, are lost at night on an ecological reserve. That being said:

“Poison oak makes a good tea. And all plants are eatable.”