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PBS documentary highlights Furman’s Wild Semester in New Mexico wilderness

A still from the documentary “Learning Wild,” which follows Furman students in the study-away class Wild Semester. Image courtesy ShadowCat Conservation Films LLC.

Last updated February 7, 2024

By Clinton Colmenares, Director of News and Media Strategy

In New Mexico’s Aldo Leopold Wilderness and Gila National Forest, where four-legged creatures such as cougar, Mexican wolves, coyotes and bears outnumber people, more than a dozen Furman University students spend the better part of a semester learning wildlife conservation immersed in wildlife.

A new documentary offers a glimpse into the class, Wild Semester, a 16-week, 4-course study away program Travis Perry ’92, a professor of biology, has led for 19 years. A screening of the documentary will be held on Furman’s campus Sunday, Feb. 18, at 5 p.m. in the Younts Conference Center. The event is open to the public. It will also air on New Mexico PBS on Feb. 22.

Film makers Michael Abernathy and Matthew Murray followed the Furman students and staff in the fall of 2021 through the Gila’s rugged terrain and in their base camp, a ghost town called Hermosa. The students learn from several professional conservationists from state, federal and private organizations. Furman alumni, who either went through the Wild Semester themselves or were Perry’s research students, often come back to assist with the program. They even assist with large carnivore research, a unique engaged learning experience for the class. In one scene, the students have the chance to participate in the capture of a black bear.

Jenn Summers ’13, a Wild Semester alumna who makes an appearance in the video, went on to get a doctoral degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Tennessee. She’s now a program officer at the National Academy of Sciences. A conservation ethic was instilled in her during her time in the Wild Semester.

Jesse Woodsmith ’14 went through Wild Semester in 2011. Now the director of conservation and stewardship for the Southern Conservation Trust, she said the Wild Semester provided the foundation for her career as a conservation biologist. It “sparked my interest in working across disciplines” for conservation goals, she said.

The documentary weaves history through the hour-long program, providing explanations for current conditions, like the extinction of grizzly bears from the area. It also builds tension surrounding Hermosa; the owners of the town put it up for sale, and Perry needs to raise money to buy the property if he wants to continue Furman’s unique Wild Semester.

“The Wild Semester is a truly unique offering among U.S. institutions of higher learning and has been identified as meeting a critical need in conservation education by the Ecological Society of American and the Wildlife Society,” Perry said. “The journey to save Hermosa and the Wild Semester is an important story to tell, highlighting Furman’s commitment to engaged learning and the environment. This is part of Furman’s legacy.”

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Clinton Colmenares
Director of News and Media Strategy