When College Requirements Pay Off

Let’s take a quick trip back in time.

Sophomore year of college. Tucked away on UNC-Chapel Hill’s beautiful campus is a basement lecture hall with no windows. I’m sitting in it, along with 150 other tired college students.

It’s an earth science class. It’s required. And it’s early. The professor is talking about how the character of a volcanic eruption is largely controlled by viscosity, or resistance to flow. Viscosity increases with silica content. Silica content increases with…

I yawn and force myself to take notes. It’s so early.

Fast forward eight years. I’m no longer a student at UNC. I’m an employee for the university now, and I’m standing in a lava field below an enormous volcano in southern Chile.

“So you can see the lava flow was really viscous,”explains the geophyscist standing next to me. “But the lahar flow moved much faster because it had so much water.”

“Right, I remember studying that actually.”

I am not a geophysicist. I’m not even a scientist. Violent Earth was one of the only science classes I took in college. But as I stand among the massive swath of dried lava, I’m really, really glad I took that class.

The dried lava flow below the Llaima Volcano in Conguillo National Park.

I’m here as a journalist, documenting an expedition where teams of researchers are installing cutting-edge seismometers to better understand one of the most active volcanos in South America.

There are about 20 scientists here—they are all experts in volcanology and seismology. They are very strong—hauling heavy equipment up treacherously steep terrain for hours at a time. And they are very smart—collecting and analyzing enormous amounts of seismic data.

As the only non-scientist, I ask a lot of questions. I try not to ask too many stupid ones. Yes, I know what a stratovolcano is. I remember the graphic from my Violent Earth textbook that illustated tectonic plates and subduction zones.

About 20 miles below our feet is a major subduction zone, where the Nazca plate is slowly forcing itself under the South American plate. The collision of those two plates created the Andes mountain range. It also created Llaima, the volcano we’re standing on.

Researchers obtain special permits to access higher elevations on the volcano.

We ride in pick-up trucks and hike to different areas of the volcano. The lava flow is one stop. Next stop is a field of volcanic ash. Jonathan Lees, the principal investigator on the expedition, tells me about the different pyroclastic materials that shoot out of the volcano during an eruption.

(I remember the word “pyroclastic” from class too. As a writer, I always liked that word—lots of sharp syllables and hard-hitting consonants.)

I learn a lot. I learn more about eruptions and lava flows and lahar flows. I dump ash out of my boots and learn that this particular type of ash is called tephra. I learn about the earthquakes happening on and around the volcano all the time.

“You know it’s funny,” Jonathan says to me after describing how calculations are made from the earthquake data he collects. “People think geology is just ‘rocks for jocks’, but you actually have to be pretty smart to do this work.”

Yeah, no kidding.

A researcher shovels volcanic ash (tephra) to install a new seismometer device.

When you’re a college student, you may sit through classes unrelated to your major and think “why would I ever need to know this?”

Believe me, you need to know it.

You need to know it because you can’t predict the future.

You need to know it because you might one day be the only person in the room who doesn’t know it.

Rebecca Rodd, a UNC student working towards a PhD in geophysics, notes the location of a seismometer on the Llaima Volcano.

When I came to UNC, I knew what I wanted to do—major in journalism and become a professional storyteller. I was passionate, driven and focused. And in my infinite 18-year-old wisdom, I was annoyed that I had to take science and math classes completely unrelated to my major. If I had been given the option to skip those classes, I would have.

Fortunately, UNC wouldn’t let me do that.

I was a bit too young and inexperienced to see that taking classes in a wide range of subjects (including geology) was just as vital to me becoming a good journalist as my photography and newswriting classes were.

This is not the first time I’ve paused to appreciate my liberal arts education and it certainly won’t be the last. I do at least ten things every day that I can directly attribute to my journalism degree. Whether I’m traveling in South America or just helping the person in front of me at the DMV in Carrboro, I’m really glad I minored in Spanish. And I wouldn’t be typing these words right now if I hadn’t taken a handful of creative writing classes.

For the rest of my life, I will be thankful for the education Carolina gave me. Especially that Violent Earth class.

The author photographing the installation of a seismic station.