As one of the student-leaders of Taft’s Interact Club, Fiona Zimon ’24 is deeply committed to the group’s goal of inspiring young leaders to become informed and responsible global citizens through service. Over the summer, Fiona took that commitment to a new level, traveling across the globe to engage in a range of service projects while fully immersing herself in the customs and traditions of Oceanic cultures.
With support from a Robert Keyes Poole ’50 Fellowship, Fiona spent three weeks in locations across Fiji and Australia, engaging in service-work that ranged from conservation and eco-restoration, to harvesting vegetables and preparing food for families served by a local shelter. The nature of each day’s work was driven by the needs of the community.
“In 2014, invasive ants from Asia spread across northeastern Australia, destroying trees and impacting the entire ecosystem in the region,” Fiona explains. “A species of frog that used the trees to hide from predators became endangered. We partnered with a local conservation group to plant new trees; reintroducing the native trees to the rainforest has helped increase the endangered frog population. We also volunteered at a wildlife refuge where we saw native Australian animals such as koalas, kangaroos, alligators, and cassowaries.”
Much of the work Fiona did in Australia was focused on conservation and the environment. And while she also did beach clean-up and learned to propagate coral on Fiji’s Leleuvia Island, it was learning about the Fijian people and their culture that not only shaped her time there, but delivered the most profound experiences.
Fiona spent time in Nadi, a Fijian city, and in a small rural village in the Namosi province, five hours from Nadi. She learned traditional Fijian dances there, and participated in a kava ceremony, a traditional and important ritual of offering between visitors and the village chief.
“Our guides also taught us some Fijian,” says Fiona. “The most important word in the language is ‘Bula,’ which translates to a very enthusiastic ‘hello’. They explained that everyone exchanges this greeting, regardless of the circumstance or relationships. In Fiji, it is an unwritten rule that you must greet anyone and everyone you cross paths with. I liked that a lot, as it is so different than what we do in the States. Throughout the rest of our time in Fiji, we would greet everyone we encountered in that way.”
One of the most influential Fijians Fiona encountered was a woman named Shahini.
“We spent a day learning how to cook traditional Indo-Fijian food with Shahini. We made chai tea, seasoned fried fish, rice, eggs and tomato, and okra. It was delicious,” Fiona recalls. “Shahini taught us the importance of food in Fijian culture. Meals bring people together. Often, entire villages will come together and eat and enjoy one another’s company. Meals are an event; a festivity that is celebrated.”
For Fiona, preparing food in Fiji went beyond celebration.
“We spent the afternoon preparing dishes for a local women’s shelter. We then served the families their meal, and played with the children there. The shelter provides safe housing for women in need. Some women had escaped abuse, some were widowed, and others were single parents. Many struggled to feed their large families. Knowing that providing this meal had made such a big difference was very special. Supporting these strong women was very moving. I am now looking for ways to continue supporting this shelter.”
Fiona’s time in Oceania included some traditional tourist activities, as well, from a private tour of the Sydney Opera House to learning to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef. But in the end, it was the people she met who truly left their mark.
“I am so grateful for this experience and all the people I met on the trip. While the highlight for me was the many conversations I had with the residents of Fiji and Australia, I also noted in my journal that it was amazing to travel to Oceania with a group of kids from across the country who each had their own personal stories and culture. We shared our backgrounds with one another while immersed in the new cultures surrounding us. The world has so much to offer and I look forward to discovering more of it.”
Established in memory of Robert Keyes Poole '50, Taft teacher from 1956 to 1962, Poole Fellowships are awarded each year to enable Taft students to engage in travel or in projects consistent with Mr. Poole's lifetime interest in wildlife and the environment.