Featured Leader: Mike Schwebel

Mike in Costa Rica, 2011

We recently caught up with returning Putney leader Mike Schwebel. A Ph.D. student in Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University, Mike studies and teaches sustainability and environmental planning. He and co-leader Lily Chestnut led our Community Service Costa Rica program last summer, and he will be leading our Community Service Dominican Republic program for 8th and 9th graders this year.  Read on as Mike talks about his work, his Putney experience, and his ambitious 50 state marathon goal. Click here to read Mike’s full bio.

First things first, we here at The Barn just got wind of your impressive time on the marathon you recently ran in Washington, D.C. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Thanks! Well, I started on a goal a few years back to run a half-marathon or marathon in every state. I had only run one full marathon previous to this one, so I thought, why not?  I spent the last four months training outside here in Philly (luckily, we had a mild winter). I ran between 27 and 37 miles a week and tried to improve my time. My ultimate goal was to break 3.5 hours and have a sub-8 minute mile split, and lo’ and behold after a few months of training, I finished the D.C. Marathon in 3 hours, 29 minutes and 2 seconds, with my pace of just under 7:59/mile.

Outside of running marathons, what have you been up to lately in your professional and academic life?

When I’m not wearing out my Asics, I spend way too much time at Temple University where I’m a Ph.D. student and Teaching Assistant in the Geography and Urban Studies Department. Broadly, I study and teach about sustainability, globalization, environmental planning, and the like. My specific research interests at the moment are small island states and their responses to forecasted climate change and overall climate change policy.

Community Service Costa Rica duo Mike and Lily, 2011

You have previously volunteered, studied, and worked extensively in Central America. What first sparked your interest in that region?

Wow, that’s a good question and something I haven’t thought about in a long time. About seven years ago, I graduated from Penn State and won a scholarship to go anywhere in the world and learn more about something related to landscape architecture. I had minored in Spanish and had never been to Central America, so I used the scholarship to live for a few months in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama – where I studied ecotourism and its practices. It was an eye-opening trip and I still keep in touch with some friends today that I met down there!

What past experiences led you to Putney Student Travel and how has your work with Putney contributed to your focus on sustainable development and urban studies?

One of the professors that I assisted at Temple was a Putney Student Travel leader herself back in the 1990s; she told me about Putney and the great experience she had as a leader.  My re-exposure and introduction to Cuajiniquil and the Tico communities we visited as a Putney group last summer was a reminder to me about not only the disparity of development between the United States and other countries – but also of the large amount of resources that we as Americans consume in comparison to the rest of the world.  

Mike and some of our local Tico contacts in Costa Rica, 2011.

Can you describe your experience leading Putney’s Community Service Costa Rica program last summer? What did you get out of the program and what stands out most in your mind?

Overall, the experience was intriguing and beneficial to both our students and us as leaders. We got to share our knowledge and understanding of Costa Rica with the participants while they were able to learn about the community, make new friends, and learn about themselves in an environment that was totally out of their comfort zone. What stands out for me is the coming together of the group. In three short weeks, the participants and the community not only became happily linked, but the physical fruits of our labor were also present in the town and hopefully will be there for many years to come. 

You will be headed out on our Community Service Dominican Republic program this summer. What are your hopes for this new experience?

Although I’ve explored much of Central America, the Dominican Republic will be a new area for me, and I hope to be able to explore and get to know the country as well as our students on the trip with my future co-leader.  My goal is to lead a group that is very dedicated to effecting positive change through their actions in the Community Service program in the Dominican Republic, while also learning about the culture, making new friends, and discovering new things about ourselves.

Do you have any advice for Putney students preparing for their first summer experience of this nature?

My advice would be to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to live in a foreign country for a month.  Get to know the language, meet new people, try activities and foods you normally wouldn’t, and be willing to stay off the grid for a while.  Sometimes, the best way to experience a new place is to let go of your tether to your home, wherever that may be.  Keeping in touch with mom and dad is ok with an email every now and then, but this is a time to grow and become comfortable with your new Putney family for a few weeks – so that you have every opportunity to thrive.

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