Well-Known Australian Len Zell Considers Establishment Of AustraLearn A Top Professional Accomplishment
By Stacey Hartmann
Len Zell is a noted coral reef authority, marine scientist, field guide, lecturer and author of the Lonely Planet’s Diving & Snorkeling – Great Barrier Reef and four Wild Discovery Guides including:
• Kimberley Coast.
• Shark Bay – Ningaloo Coast & Outback Pathways (with Susie Bedford).
• Australian Wildlife – ROADKILL.
• The award-winning Wild Discovery Guides and Hema Maps – Great Desert Tracks Atlas & Guide (with Ian Glover).
Zell has worked in and around the world’s reefs for more than 35 years and shared his deep knowledge of marine life through lectures and appearances on Discovery Channel, Fox Sports, TFN 1 France Ushuaia and the award-winning “Inside the Reef” series. He has two species of coral named after him for his contributions to marine science.
Yet ask this famous Australian to name his best professional achievement, and his answer will have nothing to do with any of these career highlights. Rather, it is his role in establishing the AustraLearn study abroad program more than 20 years ago that sits atop his list.
In 1989, when Zell was a professor at the University of Queensland, he came to know Cynthia Banks, a Colorado State University graduate then living and working in Australia at the same university as a resident director to assist 24 students visiting Australia for a semester from her alma mater.
The group was one of the first study abroad groups in the country, and it was clear the experience was making an impact with the students, Zell says. He recalls, in particular, a scene in which a young woman from the United States was dramatically affected after hearing an Australian student express his distress over the United States’ capacity to alter the world with its policy on nuclear war and potentially its power over other less-armed countries like Australia. The young woman listened to these views and indicated she would change how she voted once she returned home.
“She changed the way she thought, and it had this enormously profound effect on her,” Zell says. “I saw many other examples where the visiting students were saying, ‘we didn’t know it was like this elsewhere in the world.’”
“Cynthia and I were sitting in my office with our bare feet up because we’d had a particularly hard day,” Zell says. “I said something like, ‘this sort of program, the effect it’s having on the U.S. kids – we should do more of that, shouldn’t we?’ We looked at each other and said, ‘yes.’”
With that, the seed for the AustraLearn program was planted and the name “AustraLearn” fell naturally from an operation of the University of Queensland’s run by Zell and already underway, called TraveLearn.
“The logic for this was so quickly ‘AustraLearn – Australian Learning,’” says Zell, who is now an adjunct senior lecturer in the School of Marine and Tropical Biology at James Cook University. “The power of the capital ‘L’ was to ‘learn’ about Australia.”
After the successful conclusion of the program between the University of Queensland and Colorado State University, Banks returned to the United States, and with the support of a small group of faculty and administrators, launched the non-profit AustraLearn as a pilot research project to establish whether Australia could be a suitable abroad destination for U.S. students.
At the time, demand was on the rise out of the United States for student exchange positions at Australian universities. For U.S. Students, the Australian universities offered a potent mix of world-class academic programs in a geographically unique and culturally vibrant setting, yet without the language barriers of other parts of the world.
Due to smaller student populations and other factors, there was not, however, enough reciprocal demand out of Australia for exchange positions in the United States.
The AustraLearn program, ideally, would help fill that gap by working closely with partner universities on both sides of the equation to develop international educational opportunities for North American students that provided academic credit and were safe and affordable.
“It didn’t just happen,” Zell explains. “There was a lot of very, very hard work that went into the preparation and the business plan. Cynthia Banks is the one that really grabbed this concept well and truly – and made it fly,” Zell says.
In the early stages, Banks worked with Zell, Greg Harper of Central Queensland University, and Dr. Robert Allerheiligen of Colorado State University to get the project to take root.
“Len is a believer in the University of Life and a person who charges into the world to explore and learn,” Banks says. “He saw the potential early on for an organization that made study abroad safe, secure and appropriate, and through his vision and enthusiasm, supported the realization of that idea so students could discover the beauty of people and places outside their comfort zones.”
In 1991, the first two AustraLearn participants, from Colorado State University, boarded planes for their programs at the University of Queensland and Central Queensland University.
Now, 20 years after the seed for AustraLearn was planted, the organization is a leading provider of Australian, New Zealand and South Pacific study abroad programs, and now also sends students to study overseas in Asia and Europe through its sister AsiaLearn and EuroLearn programs.
Could Zell have imagined such a result?
“Interestingly, the answer is quite quickly ‘yes,’” Zell says.
The reason? So many incidents of right idea, right time, right people, he says.
“The plan we wrote at the beginning – each section of it was being met as we went,” he says. “The people we were working with were hard-working, highly flexible and intelligent people, so it clicked.”
And he adds: There’s no way he could claim AustraLearn as his best career achievement without Banks’ involvement.
“It’s my best achievement because Cynthia did it,” he says. “Thanks Cyn.”Print
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