While the Joplin area was ringing in 2020 with cold temperatures, a group of Missouri Southern faculty members and students were soaking up sun and culture as they traveled across the continent of Australia.

Eleven students made the trek as part of “Eden, Empire and the Environment” – offered as part of an interdisciplinary traveling seminar led by Dr. Megan Bever and Dr. Rebecca Shriver from the History Department, and Dr. Nicole Shoaf, from Political Science.

“The course combines history, geography and political science,” said Bever. “The idea was to connect it to the themed semester (Fall 2019’s Oceania Semester), but look at how British imperialism and British ideas of Australia as this Eden or paradise and how that shaped the way they used the landscape.”

The unique class structure allowed for students to get a variety of perspectives.

“All of our disciplines typically discuss the same topics, but we discuss them in different ways,” said Shoaf. “Bringing the faculty together offers students a chance to hear us discuss topics with each other … and have friendly debates on the way in which we view and talk about things.”

Dr. Steve Smith also discussed Australia from a geographical perspective, while Dr. Jill Greer, who specializes in anthropology, talked about Aboriginal culture.

The trip to the “Land Down Under” took place Dec. 29 through Jan. 12.

“It was a beautiful place. It was summer when we were over there visiting,” said Sammie Hargis, a junior biology-pre med major. “It was a fun thing to do over Christmas break.

Seeing the sun set over the hills in the Pinnacle desert was a highlight, she said, as were stops at a settlers’ farm, seeing the New Year’s fireworks over the famed Sydney Opera House, and a tour of Fremantle Prison in Western Australia.” The convict-built prison opened in 1855 and remained in operation until 1991.

“They took us on a really interesting tour, which walked us through all of (the prison’s) history,” said Hargis.

For senior political science major Jacob King, the course and the trip offered the chance to do a deep dive into three of his primary interests – history, geography and politics.

“The trip exceeded my expectations,” he said. “I had a chance to talk to a lot of the locals and see things through their perspective.”

One of the most striking aspects of the trip was seeing first-hand the importance of World War I to the Australian national identity.

“Becoming independent in 1901, WWI was their first foray onto the world stage,” said King. “A lot of Australians paid the ultimate price, so they commemorate it often. Practically every little town we went to had their own WWI monument.”

A stop at a wildlife preserve in Perth allowed them to get up close and personal with some of the native animals of the continent.

“I got to pet a koala,” said Shoaf. “That had no academic merit at all, but I got to pet a koala. It was amazing.”

They also got to pet kangaroos (“which are not charming,” according to Bever), and learn more about the issues with Australia’s feral camels.

Wait, feral camels?

“The British took domesticated camels to Australia and lost control of (the population),” said Bever. Recently, more than 5,000 feral camels were killed by officials in an effort to control the numbers.

The students and faculty members crossed the continent via the Indian Pacific passenger rail service, a transcontinental train ride that took them from Perth, in Western Australia, to Sydney, on the east coast. The journey allowed them to see the Outback and gain an appreciation for the open spaces and unforgiving environments in the middle of the continent.

They also happened to be in Australia at a time when the historic bushfires were making national headlines.

“Australia has bushfires every year. It’s part of the environment,” says Shoaf. “But it’s getting worse in the modern era … there was also a historic drought, which made the fires worse. I don’t think anyone predicted the scale of the fires this year.”

The fires engulfed more than 24 million acres and claimed 33 lives. It has also taken an enormous toll on already endangered wildlife.

“You could smell it at certain times,” said Bever. “And it was on people’s minds. Any time you would talk to Australians they would talk about the devastating impact of the fires.”

Still, the fires had only little impact on the Missouri Southern group’s travels. The train had to be diverted around an area impacted by the fires at one point along the way.

“We were supposed to go through the Blue Mountains, but the fires had damaged the tracks,” said King. “I had been looking forward to it … but it gives me a reason to go back.”