brown ’22 shares travel-volunteer experience and advice

Belle Brown ‘22, an environmental studies and government major while at Wes, shares her Workaway experiences in Goa, India, and the Western Ghat mountains, working in permaculture and eco-building; discusses her time at Wesleyan and her late night talk show thesis, Wesleyan Tonight; and shares advice for current Wesleyan students!

Hi, Belle! Would you mind sharing a bit about yourself and your time at Wesleyan?
Hi! I am from Arlington, Virginia, but was raised in Jakarta, Indonesia. I graduated from Wes in 2022, with degrees in environmental studies and government. While at Wes, I was involved in the comedy groups Hysterics and Awkward Silence. For my capstone I created a late night TV show called Wesleyan Tonight, which continued on for a year after I left! I worked at Long Lane Farm, and for Wesleyan Food Rescue, as well as on some senior film theses. I was also a compost intern and got to collect people’s food waste and educate them on composting. That was one of my favorite jobs; it really sparked my current interest in food justice and sustainable agriculture.

What was the process of creating Wesleyan Tonight like?
I was definitely inspired by talk show hosts like John Oliver, and also by SNL. I had an incredible crew of 18 very funny comedians who put together the script and commercials over the course of a few months, and on the night of the show we ended up having a live audience of over 120 people. There was also an incredible film crew and some talented musicians who made the show come to life! Most of the resources I used came from Cardinal Pictures, access to the Digital Design Studio, Wes Photo Club, and a number of film students who generously shared their equipment for me. I fundraised myself, and also got a grant through the Green Fund.
John E. Andrus Professor of Government Mary Alice Haddad was my advisor, and she was incredibly helpful! She is also a professor within the College of the Environment and was very encouraging throughout the process. She helped me go through my drafts and edit all of them.

What was one part of being involved with the College of the Environment that you enjoyed?
I loved that I had the chance to create an unconventional capstone. I also had the chance to see other collaborative projects, like art created by art studio majors and creative fiction from English majors.

What are Workaway programs? What kind of work were you doing, and where were you?
Workaway is a program where you trade labor for room and board. I was mostly in India and Nepal, but during that trip I also had the chance to go to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

India is a really interesting place because it has a significant history of industrial agriculture with the green revolution and the recent historic farmer protests. The agriculture system is very different from the systems that exist in the United States. I had a chance to work in permaculture farms, and I definitely felt very connected to nature during my time there.

There is an emphasis on ecobuilding in the program, which doesn’t exist as much in the US. We had the chance to build treehouses out of scrap wood and reused materials. We would hike to a nearby river and collect bamboo that had been washed to shore to use as building materials, repurpose old car windows, and reuse old scrap tin. I also built a mud house, with mud sourced from large ant nests. Mud houses are naturally cooling to counteract the insane heat in the summer, and when it’s cool in the winter the houses are naturally insulated.

Where did you live during your stays?
I was living in a treehouse hostel/dorm with 18 other people! Then, later I was living in a house made of mud and wood. I felt much more connected to nature while living in a mud house, because I built it myself and was able to hold and touch the Earth.

What kinds of food did you grow through permaculture?
They had starfruit, pitango, coffee beans, mint, strawberries, passion fruit, and herbs. I wasn’t familiar with some of the plants, so it was cool to learn about them. We supplemented our food with what we harvested through permaculture.

Do you have any advice for students interested in Workaway programs?
Yes! The first suggestion I have is to go through every Workaway offered in a country. That way you can get a feel for the opportunities you would like to get involved in. Figure out what you are hoping to learn; I was interested in eco-building and permaculture. There are so many niche topics that you can gain experience in! It is definitely a good idea to choose a program with a number of volunteers, so you can become part of a community. Second: Look for exciting and beautiful locations. The first place I went was Goa, India, and then I stayed in the Western Ghats mountains, which inspired the setting of the Jungle Book. There was a stunning waterfall and the nature there was absolutely beautiful. And third: Reach out to the people hosting the Workaways, and talk to them on the phone. Read every review. I would also stay away from Workaway programs that are very small.

Did you learn anything about the environment during your time with the Workaway program that influenced your perspective going forward?
I learned a lot about the importance of mushrooms! Mycelium is especially critical for drawing down the legacy carbon load from the atmosphere and for regenerating the soil. I am now volunteering for a place called the Fungi Foundation. There are so many metaphors embedded within these networks, they can remind us about how interconnected we are. They also influence our biochemistry when we inhale spores through the air.

Another lesson I’ve taken with me is how important out-of-the-box thinking is in addressing the climate crisis. It is also important not to just defer to the paradigms that have been created through Western thought and science, and to consider more perspectives.

Do you have any advice for Wesleyan students with similar academic interests?
I would suggest taking more science classes. I wish I had a base in the physical sciences underlying my environmental studies degree. At the same time, my background has allowed me to consider environmental perspectives in a unique way, and it has expanded my ability to write and think critically.

What would you like to tell graduating seniors from the College of the Environment?
Definitely cherish your time at Wesleyan! After graduating, consider different community-building initiatives, volunteering, and working at farmers markets, like I am doing now. Definitely consider Workaway, WWOOFING (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and other programs like AmeriCorps. There are so many different directions to go, so choose something that feels authentic to you. Follow your heart!