The Pacific Islands: Environmental Activism and the American University

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On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans. While news organizations were quick to cover the wreckage, the climate refugees who escaped and were ultimately displaced for years were seemingly forgotten. Benjamin Ireland, assistant professor of French in the modern language studies department at TCU, recalls returning to his home in New Orleans following Katrina to search for anything that might have survived the storm. Amidst all of the destruction, the thing he remembers most is the compassion he saw from volunteers. Notably, he remembers college students who had travelled hundreds of miles to provide aid for the people of New Orleans. They were TCU Horned Frogs.  

Professor Benjamin Ireland

Professor Benjamin Ireland

Ireland cites this moment and the effects of Katrina as a turning point in his life. Had he not been displaced, he says, he never would have been put on the path that eventually led him to professorship at TCU. His reason for joining the TCU community was clear: he had seen TCU’s mission in action and had witnessed the power of compassion and servant leadership first-hand. He saw the profound impact students can make by giving back to communities in need.  

 Through his academic research, Ireland has found another community in need. This time, he’s leading the charge to help.  

 Between 1946 and 1996, the Pacific Islands were the site of extensive nuclear testing. Although the countries responsible for the tests assured residents that there would be no lasting effects, this quickly proven to be wholly untrue. In fact, the tests led to serious health problems for the indigenous populations on the islands. Residents of the islands were plagued with radiation poisoning from consuming fish that were exposed to the nuclear tests offshore.  

 Since then, the Pacific Islands have seen an influence of toxicity in their environment that has had profound and lasting impacts on their culture. Radiation was just the start.  

 According to Ireland, as the effects of climate change became readily apparent, the people of the Pacific Islands faced new dangers. This time, in the form of rising tides. The once predictable tidal cycle began to drive people from their homes as areas that used to be inhabitable flooded. Ultimately, populations of people across the islands were – and still are – forced to adapt to a life of perpetual displacement.  

 Cultural norms, in particular, make displacement and providing aid to the people of the Pacific Islands challenging. Group mentalities, linguistic differences and geographic isolation all act as significant barriers for support and resources.

Knowing all of this, Ireland set out to create a plan to help.  

 Starting in 2020, TCU will be one of the first American universities to have a partnership with a francophone university in the Pacific Islands. Through this partnership, Ireland hopes to provide valuable resources and opportunities for students and the local community on the island. Additionally, he hopes that this partnership will provide TCU students with an opportunity to learn about cultural differences and give back to a community in need.  

 Professor Ireland will discuss the challenges faced by Pacific Islanders and his plan to help in his lecture at Back to Class, a fundraising event aimed at helping students research, travel and learn through the AddRan College of Liberal Arts at TCU. Go Back to Class on March 28, 2019, to hear from professor Ireland, and other professors, on this topic and more. Learn more by visiting the Back to Class website.