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If you want to go far afield, find an undergrad research grant

As I entered my first year at Occidental College in Los Angeles, I never dreamed I would get a research grant.

I heard about the opportunity for funded undergraduate research from an upperclassman who received a grant the previous year. I was warned that it was not an easy process, but I was determined to succeed.

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After my freshman year, I went to Costa Rica and Guatemala on a summer study abroad. That enlightening experience reinforced my interest in applying for an international research grant for the next summer.

During the first semester of my sophomore year, I began to develop ideas about where and what I wanted to study. Since one of my majors is environmental studies, I was interested in studying the issue of deforestation in a tropical country. I decided to propose study in Ghana because of the limited amount of research on deforestation in tropical West Africa.

Finals were filled with studying for courses and letter writing to diplomats, ministers, professors, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), both within Ghana and internationally. I received my first positive response from a professor in the Netherlands. As a specialist in forestry in Ghana, he was able to assist me with more contacts and resources.

Letters bearing colorful stamps from Ghana began to regularly grace my mailbox. This was an amazing process to me. The fact that I, an undergraduate student, could write to someone across the Atlantic Ocean about my topic and receive a reply was inspiring. My motivation increased as I received letter after letter.

I finally compiled enough information to prepare a 35-page proposal. It included a complete itinerary, budget, bibliography, contact list, set of interview questions, and research plan. After an intense interview with eight professors, I was granted the Richter International Fellowship to study the work of environmental NGOs to alleviate deforestation in Ghana. I was relieved and grateful.

Once it became a reality, each day of my two-month stay in Ghana provided new challenges and opportunities. The environmental programs that I participated in and researched through the generous support of local NGOs included: agro-forestry, snail-farming, tree-seeding distribution, and environmental education. I was heartened to see the programs having a positive impact on local communities.

To gain a wide perspective of the environmental movement in Ghana, I interviewed various governmental representatives, including the minister of the environment. The minister, also a member of Parliament, granted me a lengthy interview, put me in contact with other environmental branches of the government, and invited me to call him if I needed further assistance.

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I also had the opportunity to live with two different families, which offered additional insight into Ghanaian culture. My first family immediately made me feel at home by giving me a local name, Abena. All Ghanaian children are given names referring to the day of the week they are born. Abena means Tuesday's child.

I will always remember the warm way I was treated and the willingness of the local environmental leaders to protect the remaining forests for future generations. Based on my experience, I encourage other undergrads to take advantage of research opportunities.

* Heather Plumridge, a junior at Occidental College in Los Angeles, is majoring in environmental studies and diplomacy and world affairs.

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