“It was so great to come together with people I didn’t know in such a magical place that really opened my perspective and mind even more,” says Kate Wattanavekin (W '20), finishing our interview, and perfectly summing up her trip over winter break. Though she’s dressed in a cozy black sweater and denim, the most notable feature on Kate is her smile. She’s practically glowing as she talks about her week–long adventure to Antartica, which, unlike many of our Netflix–filled, couch–located breaks, was filled with rigid temperatures, miles and miles of hiking on pristine lands, and poop tubes.
The 12–person trip began on Dec. 28, but for the junior from Bangkok the process started months prior. Scrolling through Facebook, she found an information session for the Wharton Leadership Ventures of the McNulty Leadership Program—a leadership initiative for both undergraduate and graduate Wharton students—and the offering of a trip to Antarctica. When she discovered the opportunity early last semester, she didn't hesitate to sign up.
Kate has essentially established her place on campus. She’s a PennQuest leader, a sister of Tri–Delt, a member of PennThai, on the social impact advisory board, and part of MUSE Consulting. Feeling so stable in the Penn bubble, she felt as if it was time for a change. And visiting a continent that only about 40,000 people visit a year was a fitting challenge.
The trip team consisted of two professional guides and twelve undergraduate students, two of whom were venture fellows. The venture fellows, Greg Lim and Romie Boyd, sent out messages before the trip and gave feedback at the end of each day. The five female students and seven male students came from completely different backgrounds, such as being born in various countries like Singapore, Canada, or Germany, or being part of a range of campus activities like soccer or PennQuest. But these differences made them closer. “The fact that we’re all spread out not just in activities but in our age and the year that we’re in really got us to bond over the different perspectives that we had [….] and the different priorities,” said Kate.
From Dec. 28 to Jan. 5, the students were together, exploring the country of Chile and King George Island in Antarctica while blossoming into leaders, introspective thinkers, and banter–trading friends. Kate captured it all in her very own video documentation of the trip.
Kate and her fellow adventurers arrived in Chile on Dec. 27 and 28. At first she only knew these strangers by their first name, but was shocked at how quickly everyone opened up. “I felt like we already knew each other for a year … everyone opened up so quickly and it made me so thankful because I don’t think you get that here at Penn. Being at Penn, being at Wharton, I feel like it’s hard to know someone beyond the superficial level … so I guess it kind of hit all of us that we're about to spend a week together, so there’s no point holding back,” Kate reflects.
The group’s bond strengthened as the trip ensued and many challenges were faced—the first being their flight to King George Island having to turn around because of extreme weather. The students spent the night at the airport until flying out again around 1 a.m. on Dec. 30, and then immediately started walking to a campsite to pitch tents.
The trip was different from many of our breaks for a variety of reasons, but the 7 a.m. wake–up call every morning might have been one of the most stark contrasts. After two hours of cooking, packing up the campsite, and collecting water to boil and drink, the twelve students walked for at least six hours, split into two groups: Seal Team and Club Penguin. The hike was difficult—they carried backpacks of all their possessions and pulled sleds—but also beautiful, with miles of pristine white snow and visits from seals and penguins.
The trip enabled individual growth, pushing your limits and becoming one with nature. Kate reflects on the opportunity to be introspective, each day ending with participants examining their high point and low point of the day. Every participant had the chance to be "Leader of the Day": the one who held the map, determined when to take breaks, gauged the morale of the team, and led the “After Action Report.” During this report, the members would give both a compliment and constructive criticism to the people on their respective teams. After all, when climbing up a glacier tied together, communication is key.
While the adventure had a handful of qualities that would look great on any resume, what really made the trip to Antarctica special for Kate were “the little things.” The lack of cell service led to deep, interpersonal connections in what felt like a completely different world.
Everyone got to laugh even in the most unlikely times. For Kate, being attacked by giant birds—Skuas, to be exact—after accidentally stumbling on their nesting site was not a good memory. "They literally swooped down so low I had to lie on the ground and I was like ‘Oh My God I’m gonna cry,’" Kate recounts. But the support and banter she received afterward mended the situation immediately. "Having [my group] there was so supportive and after that it was just like, wow, what a great group of people."
On the second to last night, the students ran into the ocean for a “Real" Polar Plunge. Initially, Kate was hesitant, but her group members reminded her that she would only regret not doing something, and as she retold the story to me weeks later, she said it was one of her favorite memories.
The trip to Antarctica clearly had its fair share of challenges: getting lost, virtually no indoor spaces, no bathrooms, and having to poop into tubes because of the Island’s rule that no form of waste should be left behind. However, to Kate and the rest of her crew the trip was completely worth it. "A trip of a lifetime," as Kate coins it, has inspired her and those around her to reach out and be more open. She hopes to inspire you too. And of course, to give a “shoutout to all the participants on the group: Greg [Lim], Romie [Boyd], Abe [Gomez], AJ [Aujla], Caleb [Carter], Clifford [Yeo], Grant [Heilman], Lydia [Chen], Michelle [Yuan-Lyu], Nick [Strauch], and Ruhy [Patel].”
In the end, it was these people that made the trip for her. "Every person I met was just genuinely so inspiring," says Kate.