The 2017 year's Ecology of the Everglades course
The 2017 year’s Ecology of the Everglades course

Like the watery sea of sawgrass itself, no one remembers the precise moment when the SUNY Broome’s Ecology of the Everglades class first began, even the professors who started it.

For the past 45 to 47 years – depending on who is telling the story, and when they’re telling it – 30 college students have made the 1,400-mile Winter Term trek to one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. While there, they traipse through swamps, canoe through mangroves, kayak on the ocean and camp outside in the wilderness, all while learning concepts they first touched upon in the classroom.

Through the decades, the college’s flagship “adventure course” has become an essential part of the college ecosystem, shaping generations of Hornets curious about the natural world.

“Our Ecology of the Everglades course has been immensely popular, and not just because it offers students the opportunity to head to Florida during our Upstate winters,” said SUNY Broome President Kevin E. Drumm.

The entire Southern Tier will now be able to tag along with the January course, thanks to a documentary created by two SUNY Broome alumni that documented the 2016 trip. “Experiencing the Everglades” will air on WSKG at 10:30 p.m. Jan. 1, 2020, giving viewers a 20-minute glimpse into the experience of a lifetime.

 “It is a wonderful opportunity to be offering our platform to showcase their talents,” said WSKG president and CEO Greg Catlin.

Ecology of the Everglades graduates, faculty and supporters during the Nov. 21 premiere of "Experiencing the Everglades"
Ecology of the Everglades graduates, faculty and supporters during the Nov. 21 premiere of “Experiencing the Everglades”

The premiere

WSKG hosted a premiere of the film Nov. 21 at their Vestal studios. It functioned as a reunion of sorts, bringing together program alumni, faculty and staff, who shared stories of their experiences.

The course was the brainchild of two young, idealistic college professors – Rick Firenze and David Walsh – who found themselves disenchanted about the science education’s lack of direction. Professor Walsh retired in 2003, although Professor Firenze still teaches at SUNY Broome and leads today’s Everglades course with Professor Mark Demetros.

“We basically threw a bunch of students in a van and a station wagon – remember those? – and we, in January, headed out to the furthest point south from Binghamton through ice, sleet, snow and rain,” Dr. Firenze said of the inaugural year.

They drove the entire distance in a straight shot of 28 hours, followed by two weeks of exceptionally long workdays. Unlike today’s class, in which lab technicians Robin Alpaugh and Ben Andrus figure out the logistics and perform much of the necessary support, the two professors were responsible for it all, including cooking and meal preparation – such as it was.

Today’s meals are hearty affairs, with vegetarian and vegan options, as well as the famous pasta cook-off between Andrus and Alpaugh that even draws students from other colleges, hoping for leftovers. The two – class alumni themselves – have the process down to a science, volunteering their time for the past 17 and 31 years, respectively.

Meals that first year were a little less than gourmet. Think: concrete-hard linguini, a beef log and a cheese wheel, presented with the words “have at it.” In the early years, the class also had to transport their own canoes, a process that Professor Walsh compared to solving a Rubik’s Cube in complexity.

The days are filled with challenges, laughs, incredible wildlife – and an entirely different sort of education.

“If you just give interested people the experience of being in the ‘glades, the ‘glades does the teaching,” Professor Walsh said.

Nick Venuti, left, and Robin Alpaugh during the Nov. 21 panel discussion of "Experiencing the Everglades"
Nick Venuti, left, and Robin Alpaugh during the Nov. 21 panel discussion of “Experiencing the Everglades”

The film

Nick Venuti was fairly new to film when Communications and Media Arts Instructor Ed Evans asked him to film the 2016 Everglades course with fellow CMA student A.J. Bush. The two students ended up bringing five cases of gear and seven cameras to Florida, including a Go Pro for underwater shots and night-vision technology for filming in utter darkness.

They didn’t have a plan and simply filmed what they saw, compiling a massive amount of footage. As fate would have it, the weather for the 2016 trip was uncharacteristically poor, with frequent rain – another obstacle for budding filmmakers. One night, the Florida Bay rose and flooded the campsite with 6 inches of water – leading the young filmmakers with a choice: Do they film, or try to help their peers?

“You’re carrying around thousands and thousands of dollars’ worth of gear, and there’s water all around,” Venuti remembered.

Turning the hours of footage into a viable documentary took Venuti more than 3 years. During that time, Nick graduated from SUNY Broome and then finished his degree at the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles.

“Experiencing the Everglades” was his first big project, but he has completed many short films since, and is currently working on Buffalo Scientists, a TV show pilot. He’s worked on sets with 40 people or more, and currently resides in New York City.

The film proved to be a major learning experience, showing Venuti how far he has come – and how he would approach the project differently today. “I’ve been re-cutting everything since March,” he said. “We still have a few things to tweak.”

Nov. 21 panel discussion of "Experiencing the Everglades," left to right: WSKG's Nancy Coddington, moderator; filmmaker Nick Venuti; organizer Robin Alpaugh; Professor Rick Firenze; Professor Dave Walsh
Nov. 21 panel discussion of “Experiencing the Everglades,” left to right: WSKG’s Nancy Coddington, moderator; filmmaker Nick Venuti; organizer Robin Alpaugh; Professor Rick Firenze; Professor Dave Walsh

Changing lives

While the spotlight often focuses on the professors leading the Everglades course, many other people are essential to its success, from dedicated lab technicians Robin and Ben, to the FSA, the administrative assistants and others who help make arrangements, and the maintenance staff who keep the vans safely running, Dr. Firenze said. The college Administration has also been immensely supportive, from the very first president, Cecil Tyrell, at the course’s start to Dr. Drumm today.

All of the parties involved in planning and execution share a single focus and purpose: the student experience. And the course has indeed changed lives.

During the premiere, Dr. Firenze shared some of his students’ course evaluations through the years – from the first class to the most recent.

“I hope that after my life has ended, my children’s children’s children can gaze upon an endless sea of sawgrass and say, ‘I’m glad to be alive,’” one Hornet wrote.

And then there is Dr. Firenze’s favorite, penned by Ronnie Parsons, a member of that very first class: “I won’t make the mistake of saying I found myself. In reality, my head sort of fell apart and needs rearranging.”

Two decades later, her daughter attended the Everglades course. Two decades after that, her granddaughter.

During the premiere, Dr. Firenze drew attention to another unsung hero: the college itself, which offers experiences on par with many four-year schools.

“People are shocked that a community college does what we do,” he said. “Our students don’t realize what they can do when they come to us; they can transfer anywhere, including Cornell and (Syracuse University). We have doctors, lawyers – all of these people started at Broome.”

The 2017 Ecology of the Everglades course and facilitators
The 2017 Ecology of the Everglades course and facilitators