Just because you study Mother Nature doesn’t mean she can’t play a trick on you.
This is what 53 British master’s petroleum geoscience students plus four staff members from Imperial College London (ICL) discovered in April while visiting classical outcrops in the western United States.
The students were on their annual U.S. geological field course, which included visits to the Book Cliffs, Coal Cliffs and Moab area in Utah; the AAPG Annual Convention in New Orleans; and, finally, a visit to the carbonate reservoir analogs in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.
However, on returning to El Paso, Texas, they discovered – with less than 24 hours notice – that their flights to London had been canceled due to the Iceland volcano plume, and that it would take at least a week before they could return home.
The students were due to take their final master’s exams a mere two weeks after their original return date.
The 10-day delay generated an enormous amount of stress as the students did not have ready access to computer or their coursework. In addition, some students were experiencing personal hardships linked to being away on a field course for four long weeks.
“I’m going to miss my sister’s wedding on Wednesday,” worried one student.
Another said, “I have a five-month-old baby at home. I can’t believe I’m going to have to wait another week before I can see him again.”
After taking care of the obvious crisis at hand, such as finding lodging for 60-plus people and rescheduling flights, the Imperial College staff contacted the geology department at the University of Texas in El Paso (UTEP).
The UTEP team responded to the call for help with a generosity that far surpassed any expectations that we may have had beforehand.
For example, students were given free access to computers with temporary UTEP accounts, and shuttles were organized to ferry students from the hotel to campus.
There were other surprises – most notably a barbecue, thrown by two staff members, where students and staff from both institutions could meet and socialize. Numerous social events also were offered by university staff and local politicians.
In the end, the unselfish and exceptionally kind action of the UTEP staff and students turned a potentially disastrous situation into one that the ICL group will forever cherish.
On a practical note, it allowed our students to prepare for their exams while at the same time establishing new contacts with colleagues from the other side of the world – and as a result, long-term friendships were created.
Imperial College will continue with its established tradition of taking its MS petroleum geoscience students on fieldtrips to the United States and to the AAPG Annual Convention. However, in the future it also will include annual return visits to UTEP to reciprocate, in a small way, the exceptional generosity that we received in El Paso.
We also plan to sponsor a trip by UTEP staff and students to visit Imperial College in London later this year and to look at other areas for future academic collaboration.
So, the chaos of April’s Icelandic volcanic ash cloud has had at least one silver lining – which we hope will continue long into the future.