When Sommer Kuhn ’13 was a child, she traveled from Wisconsin with her family to Orlando’s Sea World. At the first sight of the dolphins, she was hooked.
“I fell in love with them,” said Kuhn, a marine biology major with a minor in psychology, who has since immersed herself in learning about the mammals. “I’ve come to really respect these amazing creatures.”
Kuhn was this year’s recipient of the Timothy M. Smith Inspiration Through Exploration Award, an annual grant given to stimulate international travel and writing among Honors Program students. The award was established to honor the life of Smith, a lawyer by trade, whose true passion was traveling the world.s
She cast a wide net in search of facilities that offered dolphin-assisted therapy, an approach that integrates swimming with dolphins and one-on-one therapy. She wanted to spend her two weeks observing how people with challenges like autism, cerebral palsy and even depression, respond with this type of therapy. She found Dolphinland in Antalya, Turkey, and spent May 13-28 in the water with dolphins and on land, exploring the blended European and Middle Eastern culture in Turkey.
“It’s not a super scientific therapy, but it opens the door to other therapies, aiding with things like socialization,” said Kuhn.
Her 16-year-old brother’s autism and a search for an alternative to traditional therapies is what piqued her interested in the method. While in Turkey, she observed a 7-year-old German girl who had come to Dolphinland with her family to give dolphin therapy a try. Kuhn was able to be in the water with the girl and observe her change over the course of two weeks.
“To be able to share in the experience with her – in her joy and laughter – was a whole different reaction than I had seen in her arrival,” said Kuhn. “Being able to have an opportunity like this also brings her family together again in a shared experience.”
Professor Gary Luter, Honors Program director, said students who receive the Timothy M. Smith Award gain new perspectives through cross-cultural experiences and expand their understanding of global diversity.
“Most significantly, they leave their personal comfort zone and risk the unfamiliar,” said Luter. “This last idea is key to becoming a truly educated person.”
Kuhn, who is interning at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium this summer, said she’d like to find a career that marries her passions for special needs children and dolphins, and this experience in Turkey helped confirm her direction.
“It was an amazing and scary and awesome experience all at the same time,” said Kuhn, who was caught off guard the first time she heard the melodic Muslim call to prayer, seeing the mountains and Mediterranean waters in Olympus and enjoying conversations with a diverse group of travelers she met along the way. “It was very enriching to experience the culture there.”