Nikki Graziano: A St. Thomas Global Changemaker
Nikki Graziano knows she wants to be a global changemaker.
Graziano, a senior at St. Thomas studying biology and environmental studies, figured this out in an unconventional but undeniably valuable way. Graziano’s changemaking experience began 2,000 miles from campus, where she spent a semester on South Caicos in the Turks and Caicos Islands as a participant in the School for Field Studies. The program, affectionately called SFS by its participants, is one of the countless unique opportunities St. Thomas students have to customize their academic experience by studying abroad. For Graziano, living and learning in the Caribbean both deepened her love for marine biology and steered her in a new direction.
“I grew up fishing with my dad, but I had always thought of it as only a recreational activity,” Graziano says, “It wasn’t until I lived among the fishermen of South Caicos that I realized it is much more than that.”
She and her classmates spent their days collecting data and diving and snorkeling to conduct visual surveys of the fish populations on the reefs. Then, they would head to the local fishing docks to identify, count, weigh, and measure the daily catch of the local fishers. In working directly with the fishing community on South Caicos, Graziano realized marine wildlife has an utterly more fundamental meaning to the local population. Graziano says, “To us, these fish were interesting marine organisms we love to study, but to the fishermen, these fish were their entire livelihoods. They relied on fish as a source of income.”
This unique, hands-on semester abroad taught Graziano that some aspects of education cannot solely be studied in books. Some things, she affirms, you must learn through experience. For Graziano, studying abroad helped paved the path to a changemaking career: she wants to work toward sustaining the ecosystems she experienced during her time as an undergraduate student. “I finally realized that my actions and choices affect the friends I had made on this tiny island. I strive to work in the sustainable fisheries field one day, so my kids and grandkids --along with the future generations of my friends on South Caicos -- can enjoy our beautiful oceans.”
Graziano soon saw firsthand what she had learned in her environmental studies courses at St. Thomas. Soupy, one of the many fishermen Graziano got to know in the South Caicos community, described the changes he has witnessed in the marine ecosystem over the decades. Graziano says, “He, along with many other fishermen, told us how the numbers and sizes they catch have drastically decreased over the years, but they continue to fish because they have no other option. They have seen the changes to the reef dynamics, which is a direct result of climate change and human interference.” For the first time since declaring a major in biology, Graziano understood the repercussions of a standard American lifestyle and, more importantly, the potential of her work after she graduates from UST. Until she lived on South Caicos, she had only read about what she now witnessed, and, in witnessing Caribbean marine ecology, her desire to begin a career in sustainability became fiercer than ever.
Diving under “The Arch” during a recreational dive with peers.
Janie Swingle graduated from St. Thomas in 2017 with a degree in Communication & Journalism and French. She will move to France this fall to teach English as a second language.