Montana State University

Lipfert finds the world is wired during Fulbright to Mauritius

December 8, 2011 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


MSU film professor Theo Lipfert, who is on a Fulbright to Mauritius, says his students at the University of Mauritius are digitally savvy and that the island nation of Mauritius, located 600 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, is a wired nation. Lipfert is also filming giant tortoise while in Mauritius for a year on a Fulbright teaching and research grant. Photo courtesy of Theo Lipfert.   High-Res Available

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Montana State University film professor Theo Lipfert is teaching and conducting research on the other side of the world, yet he is able to respond nearly instantaneously to emails as if he was in his office at the MSU VCB Building rather than a tropical island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Studying the digital connectivity in the contemporary world is, in part, one of the reasons that Lipfert is in Mauritius on a year-long Fulbright Scholar grant. He is teaching digital communications at the University of Mauritius, and researching and filming giant tortoises.

Mauritius, 600 miles east of Madagascar in the middle of the Indian Ocean, features one of the most diverse cultures on the planet. And while it is remote, it is also a wired and resourceful nation, Lipfert said.

"The island nation of Mauritius is a fascinating mix of cultures: African, Indian, and Asian," Lipfert explained via email. He said the official language of Mauritius, which is an African country, is English, but most people speak Creole. About the same size as the Hawaiian island of Maui, but with 10 times the people, Mauritius was once an island only inhabited by wildlife, including the now-extinct dodo bird. Then it was a French colony, then a British colony, and finally won its independence in 1968.

"(Mauritius) sounded like an adventure for our Montana family, and so far, it has been," said Lipfert, who is married to MSU German professor Patricia Simpson. The couple has two sons, Jackson, 14, and Colton, 11, who are enrolled in schools in Mauritius.

"My kids get another summer holiday in the middle of winter," Lipfert said. "All of the school kids wear uniforms, which is a big change for my kids."

Lipfert is an award-winning filmmaker. His most recent film is "From Montana to the Mekong," which aired on Montana PBS last month. He is teaching digital photography, information design and documentary film production at the University of Mauritius journalism program.
"There are lots of information technology businesses here," he said. "There is even a city called Cyber City near the university. The students I am working with are the storytellers of tomorrow, and they fully expect to tell those stories in a wide range of media."

In fact, a recent digital coup for Lipfert and his students occurred this week when the New York Times published four photos submitted by Lipfert's Mauritian students for its "Picturing 7 Billion" photographic time capsule http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/07/pictured-a-world-at-7-billion/#index.

"The NY Times chose photographs from around the world to document the world today on the occasion of the birth of the world's 7 billionth person," Lipfert said. "There were 400 photos selected, and four of them were from my class."

Lipfert said while Mauritius is a country of tight resources, "There have been lots of interesting juxtapositions regarding technology: people are selling vegetables and clothing in traditional open-air markets while they are updating their Facebook profiles on their smartphones."

Lipfert is also filming the island nation's giant tortoises for a documentary about efforts at "rewilding" on Mauritius and neighboring islands. He said he is also studying information design and the visual display of statistical information that relates to a class he teaches in the MSU School of Film and Photography's MFA program in science and natural history filmmaking. Simpson, meanwhile, is conducting research and finishing a book.

Lipfert is one of approximately 1,100 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program in 2011-2012.
Lipfert said he is eager to bring some of the lessons he is learning in Mauritius to his MSU students when he returns next academic year.

"I think it will be interesting for our students at MSU to learn about their peers half a world away -- they have a lot in common," he said. "I would love to help some MSU students see this part of the world. I will bring back an appreciation for the resources we have at MSU -- technology for students and faculty, research funding, the library. I think we take a lot for granted."

Theo Lipfert, theo.lipfert@gmail.com