When Jeri Fox was growing up in Tennessee, the two people she aspired to be like were Henry David Thoreau and Jacques Cousteau, both, in their own way, pioneers in the field of environmentalism. Her uncle cautioned her, though, not to try to be like anyone else, to “just concentrate on being Jeri.”
It seems that Fox not only took her uncle’s advice but has, in turn, passed along that same value for inward reflection and personal growth to her students.
Associate professor and coordinator for UNE’s Aquaculture and Aquarium Sciences program, Fox has a relationship with her students that is unique. The only instructor in the major, it is not uncommon for her to teach the same student in six different courses by the time he or she graduates. “It has given me the opportunity to get to know my students really well,” she explained during an interview on a cold January morning, while tucked cozily inside her paper-strewn office.
But often, what brings her even closer to her students is the experience they share during travel abroad programs to places such as Panama and Belize. “It’s half about the class,” she said, “and half about the students just experiencing an international location and the natural world in that location.”
She strives to make the trips as much of an eye-opening experience as possible, taking care to expose the students to much more than just the animal and plant life that they came to study. She takes them into the jungles of Panama, for example, and delights in watching their experiences, like seeing a howler monkey or a poison-dart frog for the first time in their lives. The trips, she said, often transform her students. “They blossom; they grow; their eyes are opened. They come back changed, and it’s always a change for the positive.”
“There is something about travel that crystallizes thought,” Fox mused, noting that on more than one occasion, she has seen a student who lacked clear direction in life return from a trip knowing exactly what he or she wanted to do.
A devoted mother of two sons, Fox has an ability to nurture her students academically and emotionally that seems to flow from her with ease. “They become ‘my kids,’” she said of her students. And after they graduate, “they all stay in contact.”
And like any good mother who wants to send her child out into the world knowing how to sew a button, Fox makes certain that her students have the life skills that they will need to succeed in their chosen field—skills that go beyond scientific knowledge. “I’m a strong believer in hands-on experience,” she said. “They learn how to throw cast nets, to tie knots, to saw wood, screw screws, and cut PVC.”
“We call it ‘MacGyver-ing,'" she said with a smile referring to the television character from the 1980s, known for his clever solutions to seemingly impossible situations. “I teach my students how to use simple tools to solve problems; how to really think about a problem and find a method to solve it that is as low-cost and as low-tech as possible.”
Solving problems is something that Fox spent many of her younger years thinking about and striving for. Growing up in a scuba-diving family (and scuba certified at age 14—the youngest age eligible for certification at the time), she always had an interest in the aquatic world and was fascinated with the concept of underwater gardens, popularized by Cousteau. She was also acutely aware of the world’s hunger problems and came to view aquaculture as a viable solution to feeding starving peoples. “That is what motivated me,” she explained. “That’s what kept me going in my studies when I was young.”
“It was very idealistic of me,” she admitted, “but that’s what I was going to do. I was going to feed the world.”
As a college professor, Fox feels that her biggest accomplishment toward meeting her goal is having influenced students who understand the concept of using the ocean in sustainable and ecological ways and who will go out into the world to do the work. In short, she’s proud of “her kids” and takes pleasure in seeing the next generation continue work that is meaningful to her.
And passing on one’s values is, in itself, an accomplishment, as any mother would agree.