Supporting Wildlife Conservation by Volunteering Overseas

Interview with GLA Global Ambassador Bella Jacobs

Name: Bella Jacobs
Hometown: Charlotte, NC
Grade in school: Sophomore
GLA program: Thailand: The Elephant Village Initiative (2016), Galápagos: Preserving Nature’s Wonders (2017)
Passion or dream: Working with animals

Age is just a number! Bella Jacobs took her first trip abroad with GLA as a rising freshman, before she even entered high school. After traveling to Thailand, she soon entered ninth grade and was immediately recognized as an open-minded leader. She credits traveling with developing her leadership qualities, along with helping her find a more focused interest on changing and bettering her community through service.

An animal lover, Bella recently got involved with running a nonprofit called Art Unleashed, founded by a classmate. "This non-profit auctions art from local artists at an event once a year. The money raised go to charities that help rescue, save and help animals in the area.” She also joined the newly created Global Service Club at her high school, contributing ideas to get initiatives up and running. She managed a fundraiser to supply microloans to women entrepreneurs, a project inspired by a conversation she had with a woman in Thailand, who opened her own shop in Chiang Mai with the help of a microloan. 

On traveling, Bella says, “Respect, compassion and cooperation link arms while navigating different worlds, as does a sense of optimism since not everything goes as expected.” She advises students to adjust their expectations when they go abroad, and do their part to cooperate with the native culture, including trying different foods, assuming more conservative dress, sounding out the language and respecting the religion.

“Respect, compassion and cooperation link arms while navigating different worlds, as does a sense of optimism since not everything goes as expected.”

This summer, Bella traveled to the Galápagos Islands with GLA to convert her passion for animals into action. Here are some of her insights.

What made you choose the Galápagos Islands program, out of all of GLA’s Animal & Wildlife Conservation programs?

“I chose to go to the Galápagos this year because of my love for nature, and the Galápagos is where this has been studied and best preserved. There are many conservation efforts in place around the world, and yet we are simply not doing enough. Scientists estimate that worldwide, over 175 species go extinct every day. This is an issue that I hold very close to my heart and this statistic is something that must be changed.”

As an animal lover, what surprised you about doing conservation work for wildlife in the Galápagos?

“I guess it doesn’t come as a big surprise, but interacting with the environment and the wildlife’s habitat has a greater impact than interacting with the animals themselves. It’s all a big circle, and coming into a project like this with the expectation that you’ll constantly be touching turtles and directly interacting with them will set you up for disappointment. Arriving with an openness to do what’s best for the ecosystem—improving the habitats, removing invasive species to preserve the endemic—ensures that you’ll feel productive, and is also a more sustainable approach.

With conservation work, it’s a marathon—not a sprint. While it’s hard to see whether you’re making a difference in the moment, I know with this program GLA students have been coming back year after year to work on the same habitat restoration project, and over the years, an increasing number of tortoises have returned to inhabit these areas.”

How does the Galápagos or Ecuadorean approach to nature or wildlife differ from what you’ve experienced here in the United States?

“In the Galápagos, I loved learning that culture has influenced policy, and vice versa. People here grow up learning to respect the environment and to value nature, and in turn, the Ecuadorean constitution says that Mother Nature has rights. That would never happen in the United States. However, the Islands are governed by people in Quito, the faraway capital located on the mainland. There can be a disconnect when it comes to advancing the interests of the environment versus development, which I learned from Fernando and Wilson, our wilderness guides.

Do you have advice for other students on how to navigate a leadership role?

“Leadership is a mix of being willing to assert your opinion, and choosing cooperation over individual achievement, which can be hard sometimes.”

How about advice for future students traveling with GLA?

“Follow the packing list! Have an open mind, because with travel in general you never know what’s going to happen. If you have the option to do something, take it! You can always rest or relax later, but you’ll likely never be here again. In Thailand, we had the option to go chat with a monk after a long and tiring day. It was one of the most memorable experiences. In the Galápagos we also had the option to hike just 10 minutes further. I’m glad I did it—the animals and view were well worth it.”

Bella had a number of inspirational quotes to share, from sources ranging from Hamilton: The Musical, to Eminem lyrics, to the words of American novelist George RR Martin.

The game of life has two participants: the players and the spectators. –Unknown
Lose yourself in the moment… if you had one moment, one opportunity, would you capture it, or just let it slip? –Eminem
I’m not throwing away my shot. –Hamilton: The Musical
Power resides where men believe it resides. –George RR Martin

On this last quote, Bella says, “If this is true, then I believe that the power to enact change resides in me.” We believe it too!