Cowichan teacher gets trip of a lifetime with National Geographic

Valley teacher Janet Ruest has scored the experience of a lifetime: she’s been chosen from among 2,700 North American educators to join a National Geographic expedition.

She’ll be visiting the Galapagos Islands in September as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow on the Lindblad Expeditions ship, National Geographic Endeavour.

A teacher at Chemainus Secondary since 1994, she’s just returned from a weekend in Washington, D.C., where, at National Geographic Headquarters, she met the other 34 people chosen as teaching fellows for 2015.

For Ruest, an enthusiastic lifelong learner, it’s a dream come true.

"I’ve always loved geography. I used to look at a map of the world and think, gee, it looks like a puzzle. Doesn’t this fit here and that fit there? And that was long before I knew about plate tectonics," she said.

She always wanted to be a teacher, too, and chose geography as a subject to accompany the physical education she already knew she wanted to teach.

Her high school social studies teacher made a huge difference in her life.

"She would come back after traveling and tell us stories, really personalize the experience. It made me want to go out and see the world. My goal in high school was to go to every single continent. I have one left now: Antarctica."

Her school experience also gave her an enquiring mind.

"I’ve always wondered why.

Why is that mountain that shape? Why do we have earthquakes here and not there?

"I’ve questioned everything and I try to bring that back to my students as well, that questioning, but also that what we do has an impact on the world," said Ruest. "That we’re not isolated. We’re interdependent. We need each other. And students know that nowadays. They want to make a difference."

Her goal is, "How can we as educators support that? How can we make them citizens of the 21st century, of the world, not just citizens of Chemainus, or B.C. or even Canada?" But thinking about how we’re all interconnected brings her right back to the Galapagos, where Victorian scientist Charles Darwin made his amazing discoveries.

"That’s why it’s almost such a perfect place for me. It is kind of full circle, bringing that back not just to my students but trying to get that message of interdependence out to teachers, other schools. And that’s part of my job as Grosvenor Teacher Fellow for the next year or so, to do outreach for different community groups, to go to schools and spread the word about geographic literacy. That’s the whole concept of the teacher fellowships with National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions," she said.

The teaching fellow program, now nine years old, has grown from when it started as a thank you from Lindblad ownership to honour National Geographic’s Gil Grosvenor for years of educating the world about geography.

Ruest had sent in four essays as part of her application for a fellowship but then, as the weeks ticked by, she’d given up hope of joining an expedition.

"It was amazing when I got the phone call. It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon on Feb. 7, I had just returned from a run. She said, ‘This is Mary from National Geographic. Would this be a good time to talk?’ When I heard I was going to the Galapagos, my reaction was: Wow, they picked me!" During her recent trip to D.C., Ruest met plenty of excited people.

"We were all like giddy little children, anticipating what we would be able to do."

The first members of the group left Tuesday, May 6 on a circumnavigation of the British Isles.

Lindblad runs its trips along the lines of the old Jacques Cousteau expeditions, offering excursions on zodiacs to remote spots, diving, snorkeling, chances to learn from expert naturalists and watch National Geographic photographers and videographers at work.

The people in Ruest’s 2015 group of fellows will be sailing right until December when the last of them, the ones going to Antarctica, take to the waves. In the intervening months, groups will be visiting the arctic, Greenland and the Galapagos Islands.

Ruest’s own trip to the Galapagos Islands is not until September 11-20. She’s going with one other person, an educator from Louisiana, joining the others who are taking that particular Lindblad expedition on board the National Geographic Endeavour.

"This will be the first larger grouping going to the Galapagos as part of this program. We’re very excited to be the forerunners for our fellowship," she said.

"What’s cool about this is that we’re going to be learning so much. I’m always taking courses or workshops, trying to change things I do in my classroom to make it more interesting for my students. We’ll have six to eight experts on flora and fauna on our ship, taking us out every day. The intrinsic value is amazing."

Finally, Ruest is thrilled that her success shows someone can get there, even from a school as small as Chemainus Secondary.

"People may think if you teach at a small school you might not be chosen. But if you put yourself out there and apply for something as prestigious as the Grosvenor fellowship and make it, it’s inspirational. You keep going and trying to improve with learning all your life long."