Imagine going camping for two weeks. When would you make the reservations? How would you get there? What would you bring to eat? Now multiply that by two dozen people – and you’ll get a sense of what goes into facilitating a course like BIO 200: Ecology of the Everglades.
Started decades ago by Professors Rick Firenze and Dave Walsh, the popular Winter Term course brings students to Florida’s Everglades National Park, considered by many environmentalists to be the country’s most unique and endangered wilderness area. Students study ecological principles through an extensive wilderness camping experience, which includes hikes through the swamp, canoeing through mangroves, ocean kayaking, lectures, projects and more. Dr. Firenze still teaches the course, along with Professor Mark Demetros.
While they may be fascinated by the flora and fauna surrounding them, those two-dozen Hornets need to eat, get around and get access to popular national parks – some of which require you to register nearly a year beforehand. Enter alumni Robin Alpaugh and Ben Andrus. Alpaugh, currently the Executive Director of the United Way of Broome County, first attended the course as a student, after learning about it from Professor Walsh.
“I’ve been involved in Scouting since I was a kid, and I’m an Eagle Scout. I had the camping thing down,” said Alpaugh, a graduate with degrees in Liberal Arts at what was then-BCC and political science at Binghamton University.
“What a life-changing experience it was!” he reflected. “The classroom is essentially the national park. There were no walls, no chalkboards.”
Some years later, the trip’s previous cook stepped down – and Alpaugh jumped at the chance to help out. Another alumnus, Lou Pizzuti, became the cook, with Alpaugh as his assistant, for nearly eight years. When Pizzuti stepped down, Alpaugh took the lead.
For the past decade, he has worked alongside alumnus Ben Andrus, a Binghamton University librarian, and the operation has become increasingly refined. Gone are the days of box mac and cheese with that neon-yellow sauce, and the quick hot dogs.
“We really raised the bar since I was a student,” Alpaugh said. “We see what other community colleges do down there and they really rough it; students prepare their own food. We do breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every year, we try to do it a little better and a little bigger.”
Andrus and Alpaugh even had a cooking competition, pitting Robin’s unique cheese sauce (yes, mac and cheese, but homemade) against Ben’s pasta dish. (Alpaugh won.)
The dynamic duo does more than just cook, however. They’re responsible for the entire infrastructure behind the course, from planning to travel, said Andrus, who has been going to the Everglades with the class for 14 years, the first year as a student. Both the Everglades and the National Parks course that takes students out west during summer term require strategic planning, from the parks the students will be staying at to travel routes, and where to pick up supplies along the way. Some of the parks are immensely popular, and require reservations months in advance.
“Two weeks after we get back, I’m making reservations for the following year,” Andrus said.
In short, their goal is to make a complex operation run smoothly – knowing that everything can turn on a dime. These can include medical emergencies, and the two facilitators are willing and able to transport students in need to the nearest hospital – and they have.
Alpaugh and Andrus’ contributions to the trips are deeply appreciated by the professors and the students.
“Robin Alpaugh and Ben Andrus are much more than just our cooks and our drivers. They are indispensable partners in our field courses in both the Everglades and the National Parks out west,” said Dr. Firenze. “They are truly the infrastructure that allows the course to run smoothly and efficiently. And in courses of this nature, infrastructure is everything. The students absolutely love both Robin and Ben and those of us who are fortunate enough to teach these wonderful courses rely on them for both the planning and execution of the course. Simply put, these courses could not run without them.”
Robin Alpaugh has remained deeply connected to SUNY Broome – in more than just trips to the wilderness.
While studying political science, he worked on several political campaigns, including that of 1971 alumnus Bob Moppert. Alpaugh then spent two years as SUNY Broome’s Director of Alumni Affairs while working on his Master’s degree, before joining the state’s department of economic development. He served as deputy regional director for Empire State Development before joining the United Way as its new executive director last year.
“Fortunately I’ve had jobs that allowed me to go to Florida for two weeks,” he said of the Everglades trip. “I haven’t missed one yet.”
He had a chance to meet up with alumnus Bromley and his wife Karen, who both live in Florida, during the last trip. The Bromleys spent the day with the class at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, participating in lectures and a walk-through.
Karen Bromley, a retired faculty member from Binghamton University, said she and her husband enjoyed the visit, and particularly the opportunity to speak with students in the class. Among her husband’s fond SUNY Broome memories were field trips led by faculty members to enhance the student experience – just like the Everglades course is today.
Both Alpaugh and Andrus are hardworking and highly knowledgeable, she noted – more than a bit like ecologists themselves. “Both of them helped us expand our knowledge of Florida, even though we’ve lived here for three years,” she said.
Alpaugh hopes to meet more alumni on these trips – and not just in the Everglades. For the past six years, he has also headed out west to assist the BIO 115: Ecology of the National Parks course. This year, Alpaugh, Andrus and up to 28 students will head to national parks in California, Arizona and Utah. It would be a great opportunity for West Coast alumni to meet up.
In fact, alumni can show up in the most unexpected places. In the Everglades, a few hikers spotted the class’ colorfully decorated vans and stopped to say hello; they were alumni. Last summer, the National Parks class stopped at a gas station and convenience store outside of Zion National Park; the owner turned out to be a former BCC instructor, Alpaugh remembered.
While filled with beautiful vistas, the trips are admittedly a good deal of work for Alpaugh and Andrus and very labor-intensive. So why keep doing it?
The opportunity to get out of the upstate winter and into shorts and a t-shirt for two weeks, for one, Alpaugh admitted. And there are the intangibles, too, such as watching new faces each year behold the wonders of the natural world.
As students, Andrus and Alpaugh said they both forged friendships on their ecology trips that last to this day. Seeing friendships emerge among the alumni of the future is a special treat.
“It’s fun to watch the groups. First day riding in the van they’re still getting to know each other and more reserved,” Alpaugh said. “By the end of the trip, it’s a family. They become lifelong friends afterward in many cases.”