A year of discovery

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Acorn to Oaks
by Ryan Hueter

Misunderstandings usually lead to disappointment, but for John Berkes, his confusion led to the discovery of a new passion. Thinking it was a core class that every college student took, Berkes enrolled in Psychology 101 at Gonzaga University and soon realized how much he enjoyed the subject.


Later, the Staten Island, N.Y., native enrolled in another psychology class to prepare to major in the subject and Berkes’ professor alerted him to a study-abroad opportunity in Africa.


A 2009 graduate of Sequim High School, Berkes recently returned from a 36-day stay in Zambia, where he studied the behavior of chimpanzees and worked with schoolchildren to monitor the primates’ interaction and development.


While in Zambia, Berkes worked as a research assistant to two German psychologists, who were observing the hierarchy of chimpanzees in an enclosed setting.


For instance, they watched the chimpanzees to see which animals drank from the water basin first and whether certain chimps were not allowed to drink by their counterparts. They also monitored their method of drinking.


The trio placed drinking instruments, such as a water bottle and a fruit peeler, in the enclosure to observe whether any of the chimpanzees used the tools to drink.


Chimpanzee Rita is pictured here with baby Rusty.
Sequim High School graduate John Berkes recently spent 36 days studying chimpanzees in Zambia. Photo courtesy of John Berkes


Berkes not only spent time observing the behavior of primates, he also noticed significant cultural differences in the people of Zambia from his American mates.


“One of my favorite things about being there was how times and schedules disappeared,” Berkes said.


As he was readying to depart Zambia, the driver of the bus that would take him to the airport did not arrive until two hours after the scheduled time. However, Berkes said the Zambian people were not upset about the mishap, a significant departure from the majority of Americans.


While Berkes said some parts of Zambia are “Westernized,” where he stayed was unlike Sequim, which the Berkes family has called home since 1999.


Bunk beds rested upon cement floors inside the cinder-block building that Berkes called home for just over five weeks. He said there was refrigeration in the cramped kitchen of his dwelling, but the appliance acted more like a freezer, causing a difficult balancing act between keeping items cool and keeping them from freezing.


However, Berkes was impressed by the Zambians’ positive outlook despite their lack of many modern amenities and said he would like to return to the south African country.


“I want to go back in some capacity,” Berkes said. “Everybody there was really nice. They’re always so optimistic.”


Berkes will be a junior at Gonzaga in the fall, but he says his education is far from complete.


After graduation, Berkes plans to enroll in the master’s program in education at Notre Dame University, with the hope of becoming a high school or middle school counselor.


He added he is considering earning a Ph.D. in psychology, with an emphasis in adolescent development, because he would like to have the opportunity to open his own practice.


Although Berkes discovered his interest in psychology almost by accident, he appears confident in his decision.



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