Navigating New Experiences in Bermuda

Chamberlain International School teacher Scott Davignon (in blue shirt) has been leading student trips to BIOS for 16 years. Joining him this October was one of the school’s nurses, Barit White (in white jacket) and five students (three shown here before their trip to Nonsuch Island). BIOS educator Kyla Smith (in purple shirt) led trips and taught lessons during their visit. “We want to reach all sorts of students, so that everyone has the science background and can experience this special island,” Smith said.

To visit Nonsuch Island, a lush 14-acre nature reserve located at the east end of Bermuda, the last stretch requires guests to jump from a boat and swim a short distance to shore. For some teens, this may seem like a cool adventure. For those juggling emotional challenges that range from attention disorders and depression to mental health issues, it presents a different hurdle.

“I have anxiety and on this trip I wanted to push myself,” said Fin, a 15-year-old freshman who requested that his last name remain private. Ultimately, Fin and another student elected to ride on a small raft pushed to shore by BIOS educator Kyla Smith, who cheerfully indulged their hooting and splashing. But after two hours of hiking on Nonsuch Island and taking in lessons about native Bermudian plants and animals, Fin’s confidence had bloomed.

“This was huge for me,” he said when he returned to the boat. “I feel like I really accomplished something.”

That’s the goal of bringing select students from the Chamberlain International School in Massachusetts to BIOS each year, said Scott Davignon, the trip’s leader and the school’s director of education. The school’s partnership with BIOS began in 2003, after a Chamberlain instructor was prompted to visit by Bermudian students attending the school (to date, 18 Bermudians have been enrolled at Chamberlain, Davignon said). A year later, Davignon, who grew up fishing and boating in Florida, took over the program, morphing it into a way to share his passion for nature and marine science with his students.  

Traveling with typical teens can be both special and challenging. Add learning disorders, unpredictable emotions, and sometimes accompanying behavior issues to the mix, and it can seem especially daunting. But after 16 years, Davignon has figured out a way to have his students navigate the experience successfully with the help of BIOS educators. Students—all of whom work daily or weekly with therapists and many who require medications—are carefully screened and selected for the trip based on their abilities, and their daily itinerary is crafted to keep them busy while also leaving room for the breaks they inevitably need.

A Chamberlain International School student checked out the local marine life after his visit to Nonsuch Island.

“We want them to experience science but also use this trip to build confidence as they navigate the world,” said Davignon, who traveled this year with five students and Barit White, one of the school’s nurses. That can mean guiding them on how to pack suitcases and showing up properly clothed for a day on the water to learning how to appropriately work in a group and interact with scientists (“That means not interrupting, speaking at appropriate levels, and arriving on time to classroom lectures, even if they are tired,” he said).

Smith said that she and colleague Kaitlin Noyes have adapted to the students’ needs over the years, reading their moods and accommodating their occasional outbursts and unusual questions with humor and grace. It also means delighting in their knowledge on specific subjects; in one pre-Nonsuch Island trip lecture, the students and Noyes bantered about subjects ranging from seamounts, Earth’s rotation, and fossils.

“We want to reach all sorts of students, so that everyone has the background and can experience this special island,” Smith said. The payoff has been huge, Davignon said. “We’ve had some students go back with a keen interest in science and new love for travel,” he said.