By Kyla Brinkley
Two duffle bags, eight weeks, 16 credits and over 20 national parks and monuments. This was Meredith Brasher’s life from June 5 to Aug. 2, 2014, before arriving at the University of Georgia for her freshman year. During that summer, she participated in the Interdisciplinary Field Program. Brasher heard about the IFP through friends, including one who went to her high school in Atlanta. Representatives from the IFP shared the opportunity at Druid Hills High School because of the large volume of accepted UGA students there.
The Interdisciplinary Field Program allows students to earn a full semester of class credit while exploring the American West through geology, ecology and anthropology, traveling by van and sleeping in tents. Established in 1988, the program originally only accepted honor students and geology students. Today, it maintains a competitive application process open for up to 20 students of any major, college and year—from incoming freshmen to outbound seniors.
There’s nothing like it.
Because she participated in the program before even starting college, Brasher felt that the small group created an “incredible cushion.”
“I had seven incredibly close friends before I even started,” Brasher says. She quickly grew close with the network of people who attended the trip, including Julia Cox, the program’s coordinator. The students respect Cox because she works hard to maintain all aspects of the program. “She does everything,” Brasher smiled. “She’s already planning the campsites right now.” Brasher was uneasy when she began the trip because she was not only a rising freshman, but she had never even slept in a tent. She is confident, however, that even those students less connected with nature can enjoy themselves during the IFP.
It took her about a week to get used to the experience, and she emphasizes that this would not have been possible without the amazing group of people who she shared it with. “Even if you are horrible at this lifestyle, people will laugh at you in the best type of spirit,” Brasher says. “It’s just a traveling support system.” The sense of community fostered by the IFP allows students like Brasher to cultivate lasting friendships, even if the journey feels scary at first. “The first night, I remember calling my mom like, ‘What have I done?’” Brasher recalls.
She has kept in touch with the network of students who embarked across the country with her, maintaining close friendships with many of them. Some students she met were from other institutions, such as Georgia Tech and Georgia College and State University. Brasher explained that she has also met a wide variety of people just “through shared experience” from the trip. An English and political science major, Brasher also loved the IFP because of the style of learning used. For her, writing is usually the best way to learn. During the IFP, however, she was immersed in the material.
“We would be sitting in this national park…the grand Tetons or the Grand Canyon…in this hot sun with our professor sitting in front of us, and he’d be explaining a rock and instead of that rock being a picture in a textbook, it would be in front of us and you could touch it, or be right next to a fault line and understand exactly how these rocks move,” Brasher says. The classes weren’t easy, but Brasher felt that studying was what made it more enjoyable because of the people she was with and because it was so interactive.
During the program, Brasher took anthropology, geology and ecology—all of which had labs included. If she was not a double major, she would have graduated in three years because of all of the credit she received from the program before starting at UGA.
She also received a backpacking credit for P.E., which emphasized the trip’s effect of changing the students’ perceptions of using resources and taking care of their bodies. For example, chefs travel with the group and cook most of the meals. “Everything was so healthy and sometimes you would hike up to 14 miles a day,” Brasher says. Reminiscing about her favorite moments, Brasher immediately described Crater Lake Canyon in Oregon, the location of one of the IFP’s most iconic photos. “It’s this giant crater lake,” she laughed, trying to find the words to describe its beauty. “It’s just the bluest color I’ve ever seen. So, so blue.”
The group visited Crater Lake Canyon, a collapsed volcano, on one of the trip’s eight days off. These days allow the students to relax after studying for an exam all week. “You build up all this pressure, and then you have this stellar day when you can take a nap, or get a coffee in like this cool coffee shop in Portland, or have a really great meal with your friends and not worry about school for a minute,” Brasher says. The cycle then repeats, “so you’re always looking forward to something.” The off days also included stops in Las Vegas, San Francisco and Denver.
When the students arrived in San Francisco, Brasher and her closest friends from the IFP got to meet up with her parents before attending a concert with them. “I think that might be the most fun I’ve ever had,” she says. “It was great.”
Brasher, now a sophomore, credits the Interdisciplinary Field Program with affecting her life enormously. “There’s only a few of us that go, but everyone’s fanatic. Like fanatic about it. It just changes the way you think about the world,” she says.
She would recommend the program to anyone—one of her best friends who she met on the trip was a senior real estate major. He loved it.
But Brasher herself decided that she would not participate again, even though she would like to at the same time. “I wouldn’t want to write over the experiences that I’ve already had,” she explained. “It was so perfect so maybe I wouldn’t want to do it again because it wouldn’t be the same.” Brasher now helps with the IFP recruitment table at the Tate Center on campus, where she shares her amazing experience with prospective students.
Brasher feels that the most important lesson she took away from the trip wasn’t found in any of the reading. She pondered seriously for a moment, trying to put her thoughts into words, deciding, “I learned how to be independent and how to find and cultivate a sturdy sense of self.”