From cross-cultural literature to lassoing crocodiles, a traveler dives into adventure abroad.
How does a PhD in comparative literature wind up capturing and researching crocodiles? For Diana Davies, it’s just one more chapter in a life spent roaming and learning.
“My parents were both teachers and very adventurous,” says Davies, director of University of Iowa International Programs since 2000. “My family was lucky to have summers off, and we used that time to travel to Australia, Fiji, Samoa, Canada, Mexico and all around the United States.”
An Indiana native, Davies recalls watching her dad use an orange marker to highlight all the places they had visited on a National Geographic world map in their basement. Those early trips fed her curiosity about the world and its people.
In college, Davies studied in the former Soviet Union before the Iron Curtain rose, gaining a rare glimpse into a region cloaked in secrecy and stereotypes. “It was a funny mix of culture-shock experiences and romantic epiphanies,” she says.
During her study tour on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Davies vividly remembers meeting a diminutive, grandmotherly Russian woman who slapped her for smiling too much.
“I was just about in tears because my Russian at that time was so bad, I didn’t understand what she was saying,” Davies says. Since then, she’s visited Russia eight times, becoming proficient in the language.
Her love for Russia and other former Soviet states inspired her doctorate in comparative literature. But in all, Davies has traveled to more than 20 countries, from Antarctica and Argentina to Peru and Poland.
Some of her most recent travels have taken her to Botswana and Cuba, where she helped capture and conduct research on crocodiles.
“I had never been to the continent of Africa, and I’d been to all the other continents,” Davies says. “I really wanted to be immersed in some way.”
Researching volunteer travel, she discovered EarthWatch Institute, an organization that engages people worldwide in scientific field research and education. A crocodile research trip in Botswana was the only trip available.
Undaunted by concerns from “freaked out” family members, Davies signed on and discovered a fascination with crocodiles. “Anything you get really close to in some way and see its vulnerability, suddenly you can appreciate it as you couldn’t before,” she says.
Her team would travel at night, capture crocodiles by noose, and pull them into their boat. They would then take blood samples, weigh them, and do other health assessments. The goal was to get to know the Nile crocodile and help establish a conservation strategy to protect both crocodiles and humans.
About a year later, Davies traveled to Cuba—one of few U.S. citizens allowed into the country at the time due to her prior experience with crocodile research.
In her current professional role, Davies acts as an administrative bridge between faculty, staff, students, and the public and as a passionate advocate for international education. One of the most rewarding parts of her work is helping establish connections that “make things happen as a result of collaboration.”
Davies also makes time to learn and serve. She is pursuing an MBA through the University’s Tippie College of Business and has volunteered with the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities, Iowa Sister States, and the UI Women’s Resource and Action Center.
And of course she plans to keep traveling. She’d like to do volunteer travel in India and create opportunities to brush up on her Russian, Spanish, and Czech.
“Traveling isn’t just about checking off points on a map but actually making some kind of connection to a place,” Davies says. “It’s the difference between tourist travel and international education.”
Update: Diana Davies was appointed associate provost for international initiatives at Princeton University effective April 14, 2008.
Story by Lois Gray; Photo by Tom Jorgensen
Nov. 12, 2007