It was not Deanna Jones’s intention to be a trailblazer.
Not long after Jones, a sophomore accounting major from Algonquin, began investigating possible travel abroad destinations, she discovered that she could spend a semester at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.
It was only later that Jones found out that she would be the first Elmhurst student ever to study in the island nation, about 1,300 miles northeast of New Zealand. Every year about 200 Elmhurst students travel abroad to study. They go to dozens of nations on seven continents. But until Jones went there, Elmhurst had never sent a student to Fiji.
Now, she strongly urges her classmates to follow in her footsteps.
“It’s been just an exhilarating experience,” Jones said via Skype from her room in a residence hall at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, the nation’s capital. Fiji is famed for its blue lagoons, lushly forested volcanic mountains and teeming coral reefs, all of which attracted Jones to the island.
“I’m a nature lover, and everywhere I look I’m just in awe. It’s so different. You don’t exactly see a lot of jungle in Illinois,” she said.
Jones is one of about 30 Americans studying at the University of the South Pacific. She is taking courses in microeconomics, management and the physical environment of Fiji. She is also assisting a graduate biology student in his research on hammerhead sharks, an endangered species. Jones is part of a team that trawls the Rewa River estuary in a 28-foot boat to capture, weigh, measure and tag baby hammerheads before releasing them.
Like so much about her time in Fiji, the research has turned out to be an unexpected delight for Jones. She talks enthusiastically about hammerheads and about the need for care in handling young ones, who can be stressed by the capture and tagging process. She counts herself lucky to be learning about the animals.
“How many accounting majors get to do research on sharks in Fiji?” she asked.
Despite its reputation as an island paradise for vacationers, Jones cautions that beyond the white-sand resorts, Fiji is complex and sometimes bewildering.
“This is a developing country. It’s not all shiny and clean, and it’s definitely not America,” she said. She has had to get accustomed to what she calls “Fiji time,” the relaxed pace of a culture not so obsessed with deadlines and schedules. “You have to accept that this place is different, but also that different is not bad. I’ve learned to adapt to the unexpected and to figure things out on my own. I’m so excited to be here.”
With just a few weeks left in Fiji, Jones is eager to see and do as much as possible before coming home. She has already taken advantage of opportunities to get to know the natural wonders of Fiji. She has dived among soft coral, gone horseback riding through the ocean surf, and climbed Mount Korobaba, one of Fiji’s many volcanic peaks.
“I was told it would be a ‘mild hike,’ but it turned out to be one of the hardest physical things I’ve ever done,” she said of the climb. The view from the summit was stunning, she said. “The ocean, the reef, the landscape, it was just incredible.”
Some journeys, it seems, are worth every bit of the effort.