Students experience summer wildlife in Botswana

Andrei Snyman and Audra McCaslin working on casting a track of a lion footprint. (Photo courtesy Jazmin Castillo)
Andrei Snyman and Audra McCaslin working on casting a track of a lion footprint. (Photo courtesy Jazmin Castillo)

Wake up and smell the wildlife.

That's what one group of UNL students did every day during a month-long education abroad program this summer at the Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana, Africa.

"Most days we had a chance to sit and watch elephants," said Katie Ferris, a fisheries and wildlife major who graduated in August. "They are giants, and to be so close to them and observe how they interact is incredible."

Mingling with elephants was just one of the many wildlife encounters students had in Botswana.

"How many people can say that they got to touch a lion or a cheetah in its native habitat," said Audra McCaslin, a senior fisheries and wildlife major.

For McCaslin, traveling to Botswana fulfilled a lifelong ambition.

"I've wanted to go to Africa since I was old enough for people to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up," McCaslin said. "Other programs seemed touristy and less focused on fieldwork. I was drawn to this trip because of the opportunity to see what research is really like out in the field."

That's no accident.

John Carroll, professor and director of UNL's School of Natural Resources, organized and led the trip alongside doctoral student Andrei Snyman, who previously served as research director of the Mashatu Game Reserve.

Carroll has conducted research throughout the African continent since the early 1990s. Prior to coming to UNL, Carroll was a professor at the University of Georgia where he regularly took students to various parts of Africa. Four years ago, his focus shifted to Botswana.

"I moved my education abroad course from South Africa to the Mashatu Game Reserve to give us more flexibility in what we are able to do in the field and to allow us to start undertaking field research," Carroll said. "This year, we had the students help with a cheetah and several lion captures. Seeing the students have unforgettable experiences makes all of the planning worth it."

Those firsthand fieldwork experiences gave Jazmin Castillo a clearer picture of her professional future.

"Going to Botswana has made me more interested in the research field," said Castillo, a sophomore fisheries and wildlife major. "I had heard a little about graduate school but didn't know much. Dr. Carroll helped pique my interest in continuing my studies and taught me so much about what it takes to be a researcher in Africa."

Ferris said her interactions with people from different backgrounds provided her with guidance and inspiration for her postgraduate path.

"Based on their experiences and stories, I was able to get a better grasp of what I want to do in the next couple of years in my career," Ferris said. "I left Botswana having more direction and more mentors to help me get where I want to go."

For Carroll, that's what education abroad is all about.

"I have been doing the course for a long time and over the years I regularly hear how students feel that this is a life-changing experience," Carroll said. "No doubt I think education abroad is important for our wildlife and conservation students, but really for students in general. We share a pretty small planet in the end, so getting to know our neighbors is a good idea."

Students interested in the 2015 Botswana education abroad program can contact Carroll at or Snyman at

— Mekita Rivas, Natural Resources