Persistence Pays Off With Opportunities Abroad for Allegheny College Junior

Allegheny College junior Sebastian McRae doesn’t give up easily when it comes to pursuing one of his immediate goals: traveling out of the country to study and to explore a new culture.

McRae, an environmental science and sustainability major and a history minor, plans to attend a summer program in Costa Rica with the School for Field Studies in the summer of 2021, supported in part by a nationally competitive scholarship he received from the Garden Club of America. McRae’s pathway to this trip did not come without previous disappointments and persistence.

Allegheny junior Sebastian McRae looks forward to a summer study-away experience in Costa Rica.
Allegheny junior Sebastian McRae looks forward to a summer study-away experience in Costa Rica.

He planned to participate in the Sustainable Development Internship Program with the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement in India in the summer of 2020. He applied and received a nationally competitive Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, but his trip was canceled due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

McRae then applied to study away in Costa Rica with the School for Field Studies for the spring 2021 semester, but this program was canceled as well. Finally, the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica has come through, as long as the current U.S. Department of State travel restrictions to Costa Rica do not tighten up.

“I just want to be there, experience the place, enjoy the people, and learn something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” said McRae, who is from Redmond, Washington. “Too much planning ahead and I might miss those things when they land on my doorstep. It’s a month-long program, so in contrast to the semester, there will probably be less of an emphasis on independent research and more of an exploration of various things in Costa Rica.”

Lucinda Morgan, Allegheny’s director of International Education, said, “Sebastian’s diligence and determination is inspiring with all the doom and gloom we’ve faced in the pandemic this past year.”

Seeking Sustainable Solutions

McRae, who keeps a 4.0 grade point average, is active in sustainability issues on campus and in northwest Pennsylvania. In 2018, he founded the Sustainable Design Team, a student group that focuses on potential enhancements to campus landscaping, exploring ways to transform underutilized lawn space into an ecosystem with benefits such as food for the dining halls, learning experiences for students, and habitat for birds and insects.

“It has been quite a success so far, and all our work in the last three years has been directed at a project called the Carrden Food Forest,” McRae said.

A food forest is an assemblage of food-bearing plants and plants placed to support them, all designed with the goal of functional interconnections. The result is a garden that works like an ecosystem, with very little maintenance once it is established, requiring minimal upkeep but producing lots of food or other useful products, McRae said.

“We used a design framework called permaculture for everything, from identifying the resource of underutilized lawn space to selecting the plants themselves and placing them in a design,” he explained. “The team just submitted a proposal to Allegheny Student Government for funding, and we are beginning the conversation with the administration about approval to install the design.”

Finding New Perspective

The world’s struggle with COVID-19 has changed how McRae views success. “The pandemic has changed my perspective on this. I am normally a very goal-oriented person, but I’ve had too many canceled opportunities and disappointing circumstances in the last year to base my assessment of success on achievement,” McRae said. “Instead, I’m thinking more holistically about my personal development, my relationships with people, and the things I am learning as a basis for my success.”

Richard D. Bowden, professor of environmental science and sustainability, noted that on field trips, McRae often jumps into the front passenger seat in the van so that he can ask more questions.

“His questions are never simple — rather, they are far-ranging, challenging, and show how deeply engaged he is with environmental issues, problem-solving, and sustainability,” said Bowden. “Often I have no answers for Sebastian — he isn’t merely interested in factual information. Rather, he wants to know why things are the way they are, and how they can be changed for the better.”

McRae is already planning his Senior Comprehensive Project, a survey of agroforestry practices currently used by commercial farmers in Pennsylvania. “Agroforestry is a novel practice in the United States, so the goal is to get a sense of which specific practices are working for farmers and which practices aren’t,” McRae said. “This will help farmers and sustainable agriculture people like me design better systems for industrial-scale applications.”

McRae said he is insistent on logging at least some time studying abroad, saying it is important for him to immerse himself in a foreign environment to absorb practical knowledge about the rest of the world — and to pursue what he hopes will be his vocational calling.

“The program I selected in Costa Rica is regarded as one of the best for experiencing tropical agroforestry systems, which is an important part of my professional development,” he said. “I want to build my career in applied ecological design, and understanding the various applications of the design method to tropical and temperate climates is an important part of that.”