24 Students Experienced Rainforest Ecology Firsthand in Costa Rica

A Fenwick junior from Oak Park offers up a web log on how a nine-day ‘fieldtrip’ to Central America was life changing.

By Ben Groll ’21

It was Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Our flight to Costa Rica landed late the night before, and after three hours of sleep, my roommate Vince’s alarm woke us up. Three hours of sleep is not great, so my three other roommates and I were understandably exhausted. The previous day’s traveling had drained us, and as we all start to get packed, Vince moved the blinds, and we looked out the window. I did not take a picture, but I see it as clearly now as I see this paper: The sight of a massive mountain towering in the sky as the sun rose behind it. I saw the bright rays of pink and red from the rising sun blasting through the dark blues of night, mixing to create a beautiful sight that is unlike any I had ever seen. The “Ecology of the Rainforest” trip was just that: unforgettable, breathtaking and incredible.

The ever-changing rainforest of Costa Rica acted as an excellent background to our ever-changing trip, as our experiences each day were different from the last. Our first day was spent traveling to Tortuguero, and even the several hour bus ride was fun. All around us, we witnessed the breathtaking sights of the country, from banana trees to mountains and everything in between. We even saw a sloth during breakfast. What followed was a unique ride to our hotel, and our form of transportation did not involve wheels. We spent an hour on a boat that took us to our secluded hotel, and we spent the next three days exploring the surrounding wildlife. We were able to live inside the magnificent rainforest for multiple days and experience its wonders first-hand. On one of our boat rides, however, the first-hand nature of our trip backfired. While on our boat, gentlemen’s volleyball coach and English teacher Mrs. Whitman had an unfortunate encounter with a caiman; an experience which she remembers as fondly as one would remember an encounter with a caiman. The lurking caiman rushed through the waters and tapped her side of the boat with a relatively small amount of force. We were all surprised by it, and thankfully, nobody was hurt. Even our tour guides were surprised by this encounter.

The trip was very busy but in a good way. One of the mornings, we were awoken around 4 a.m. by the sound of howler monkeys as they were just waking up. The ambient sounds of the rainforest had woken us on plenty of the mornings, and this was no exception. The busy-ness of the trip left little to be desired in terms of time spent sleeping. Still, the incredible coffee and excitement of our time there kept me energized the entire way.

The sheer awe and amazement of the sights around us is a theme of this trip. Arguably, the most incredible sight I witnessed was when we saw turtles come from the ocean and lay their eggs on the beach. This incredible process only occurs at night, and we were fortunate enough to see multiple, one-meter-long turtles emerge from the ocean, climb onto the beach, dig patches for their eggs, lay their eggs, cover up the eggs to protect them, and crawl back into the sea as elegantly as they came from it. The lengths at which these turtles go to protect their eggs, and their growing young, is remarkable and heartwarming. As we were waiting for our time to view the turtles, we waited on the side of the beach, and there I witnessed another one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen in my life: the clearest night sky filled with a seemingly infinite amount of stars.

On the trip, we took part in ecotourism, which is the process in which tourists experience nature first hand, but in a way that supports the environment and leaves little to no footprint on it. The country of Costa Rica does an incredible job of lowering its reliance on fossil fuels and relying on renewable energy, and its impact is clear. Their commitment to sustaining the environment was awesome to learn about, and it helped me see the efforts required to sustain this world of ours. While it seems complicated, it’s quite simple, and the impact is huge. We witnessed this impact while on the beach before we saw the turtles. Mr. Menich, my classmates and I sat on the beach and witnessed the sheer beauty of the night sky. The stars dotted the dark sky and gave it a blue hue; all while shooting stars temporary lit up the dark blue sky. The untainted atmosphere here sharply contrasts that of Chicago, and this is a testament to Costa Rica’s incredible ability to reduce emissions and help the environment. And the results are breathtaking.

Online Eco-courses

The Costa Rica trip was all part of the Ecology of the Rainforest course offered during the second semester at Fenwick. Each week, we were to complete modules online. The only time I spent in a classroom for this course was when I took tests and did the final presentation. While on the trip, we were split into groups and researched a specific aspect of the ecology of the rainforest. My group was assigned to research gene flow in plant populations. During our trip, we were able to see this gene flow through the symbiotic relationship between plants and animals. Both work together and benefit each other, and an example of this was with hummingbirds and Heliconias. On multiple hikes, we saw the curved Heliconias flower, which is specially adapted for the long beaks of hummingbirds. The hummingbirds’ beaks go into the heliconia flower, and the pollen is sneakily put onto the hummingbird’s forehead by the heliconia. Once the hummingbird reaches another heliconia, the pollen on its forehead pollinates that plant, and the cycle repeats. This incredible symbiotic relationship showcases the harmony in the rainforest, which I would not have been able to fully grasp had I not taken this course and gone on this trip.

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Students-Turned-Teachers Help to Advance the Friars’ Mission

Why is it that such a surprisingly high number of former students return to Fenwick to teach future alumni?

By Mark Vruno

Presently, there are approximately 140 teachers, administrators and staff members at Fenwick High School, and 38 of them have walked the hallowed halls in Oak Park as students. Over the course of the school’s nine decades in existence, many more former pupils have returned to work and serve. “People come back to Fenwick because of the impact the school had on their lives,” believes Social Studies/History Department Chair Alex Holmberg ’05. “Whether that impact was inside or outside the classrooms, Fenwick leaves a powerful impression on everyone,” says Mr./Coach Holmberg, who triples as the school’s clubs/activities director and the defensive coordinator of the varsity football team.

Alex Holmberg ’05

“The opportunity to shape how future students approach the rest of their lives is incredibly powerful,” he notes, “and that potential draws so many people back into the building. Thinking about that opportunity to help prepare and motivate future Friars is what brought me back to Fenwick, and that thought is what motivates me to continue to help the school in whatever way I can.”

Principal Peter Groom, who has taught Friars since the 1980s, reports that many of the Fenwick graduates he has hired, he had in the classroom. “We get to know our students during their time here,” Mr. Groom explains. “We get to know their intelligence, their values, their passion and their work ethic. Typically, our graduates are also committed to our mission. When we hire people who are committed to our mission, we hire people who want to remain a part of our community for a long time. One of the keys to building a mission-based school is to have teachers who are committed and who demonstrate the aforementioned values.”

Roger Finnell ’59, a Fenwick mathematics instructor for more than five decades, concurs with fellow alumnus Holmberg:  “Many alumni teach here because they remember their experience at Fenwick as being something special and want to contribute towards continuing the traditions here,” reflects Mr. Finnell, who is Math Department Chair.

Roger Finnell in 1968.

“I knew I wanted to teach math when I started college,” shares Finnell, who also is the man behind the scenes of Black Friars Guild stage productions. “In my senior year at Loyola, after I finished student teaching at Lane Tech in Chicago, I heard about an opening at St. Ignatius, so I made an appointment for an interview. But then I thought I might as well also inquire at Fenwick. I did my Fenwick interview and was offered a position here, so, seeing this as a great opportunity, I quickly cancelled my St. Ignatius interview and the rest is history!”

Representing the Classes of 1959 to 2012

Kevin Roche ’05

Holmberg and math/computer science teacher Kevin Roche ’05 are two of thousands of Friars taught by Mr. Finnell over the past 55 years. “I think that there are a large amount of Friars returning because they had a great experience at the school, believe in what the school does, and want to be a part of ‘steering the ship’ for future generations,” chimes in Mr. Roche, who also coaches cross country. “We have Friars in different aspects of the school (operations, administration, faculty and development) who all had different experiences here yet all want to give back. I believe that this influx of alumni teachers is also a sign of our generation: millennials have a great desire to find meaning and purpose in their work. That is their highest motivator and education is a career that offers immense purpose and validation for the work through strong relationships.”

Grace Liliek ’08

Grace Lilek ’08, who is in her third year of teaching social studies at Fenwick, captures the sentiment of many of her colleagues who also are alumni: “I was inspired to pursue a career in education based on my experiences at Fenwick,” says Ms. Lilek, who also is a learning resource coordinator. “I think experience is the first reason so many of us have come back to Fenwick to teach. You will not meet two Fenwick graduates who had the exact same experience. You can be an athlete or a thespian or participate in academic competitions, and always find your niche. You can also take on all three of those roles and thrive. It is an honor to come back to Fenwick as a teacher and share these experiences with our students.” Lilek continues:

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