UNLV students reach out for experience in the summer

There is regular summer school -- classrooms, long sessions, a term paper under a tight deadline.

Then there is the other kind of summer school, the one where you get to hike the rainforest, find your future, become a hero.

"I'm studying the travel patterns of backpackers, to really look at the ideology of the group, rather than just the habits," said Mark Salvaggio, a sociology student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Salvaggio has been on an adventure for the past two months, hiking around Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. His goal: to figure out if the mostly bohemian backpackers who frequent the area change the environment they cherish so much.

You can't do that in a classroom.

"A university education is not just learning facts," said Chris Hudgins, UNLV's dean of the college of liberal arts. "It's about learning how to work with facts, learning analysis, learning how to think."

And branching outside your comfort zone by traveling should be a part of that, he said.

"If you only experience the familiar, you're not really stretching your brain that much," he said.

Salvaggio, a Ph.D. student in sociology, has been stretching more than just his brain. He's been backpacking through Central America most of the summer.

Sometimes, he just watches the backpackers. Sometimes, he talks to them, or he visits the hostels they stay in, or he surveys the travelers.

He looks for patterns. He wants to see if the ideology of free-spirited travel lines up with reality, or if it's just another form of old-fashioned Western tourism that will inevitably change that which is being observed.

Salvaggio, 29, who gets a stipend as a graduate assistant paid for by the university, paid for the trip himself.

He hopes to publish what he finds in his research sometime this fall. The topic will be something like how hostels change with market commercialization, which could have real-world applications later on.

Salvaggio expects to be home this week, just in time for the start of school.

There are many other examples of students traveling over the summer to study something they can't learn in a classroom: anthropology students on an archaeological dig or living with orangutans in the rainforest; hospitality students working in Europe; a journalism student going to Africa; creative writing students traveling all over the world; a biology student studying at one of the nation's premier biomedical research facilities.

That last one would be Austin McDonald, 21, who just spent 10 weeks studying some really complicated stuff at Washington University in St. Louis.

Basically, McDonald, a senior in biology, was studying how to switch genes on and off. He originally wanted to be a doctor, but when he discovered biomedical research, he knew that's what he wanted to do.

"I actually get into it," he said.

Washington University paid for McDonald's fellowship, as it does every summer for a group of top students from around the country.

McDonald said studying there was a great experience that reinforced his career choice.

David Ord, a professor at UNLV's dental school, said a trip several dental students will be taking soon should do the same thing.

About 10 students and two faculty members plan on leaving today for Tonga, a small, island nation in the South Pacific.

"They don't have a lot of ability there to see everybody who needs care," Ord said.

He said the students will perform basic procedures -- cleaning, fillings, that sort of thing -- for free for the mostly rural population. The students pay their own way, he said, but work out of a dental clinic on the nation's main island that is funded by a philanthropic foundation.

"It's kind of like a MASH unit," Ord said.

He said a similar trip last year revealed that toothbrushes are uncommon in the area, and so tooth decay was a major problem. In addition to procedures, education is a main goal.

"The people are incredibly grateful," he said. "As soon as they hear we're there, they line up out the door and crowd the building just waiting to get in to see us."

That kind of appreciation can help the students see how important what they do really is, he said.

And it's one of the goals of the dental school to produce graduates who will take community service seriously, he said.

Not only now, but for their entire careers.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.