Internship Program Connects Youth with Nature
2010 Conservation Internship Program
In 1964 a woman named Rachel Carson would pass away, leaving behind a legacy of environmental advocacy and a career’s worth of biological research. In addition to her work as a scientist, Carson is also famous for her writing. In her book, Silent Spring she warns against the use of chemicals in our environment with the conviction that wanton use of these agents could have detrimental effects to both human kind and the world in which we live. As a forerunner of today’s environmental movement, perhaps one Carson’s greatest impacts on the world today was the inspiration she instilled in the subsequent generation of conservationists; people who like her were invested in preserving the world’s beauty and diversity of life. It is with this in mind that few other places in the Northeast could have been more appropriate to induct a new group of conservation interns than the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, Maine.
The Conservation Internship Program (CIP) was created in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Student Conservation Association to help prepare the next generation of wildlife professionals by providing them with opportunities to gain hands on experience in the field without having to sacrifice their livelihood. Conservation interns are paid a living wage and in some cases, are also provided with room and board for the duration of their service. Because of this, the CIP experience is accessible to people from a broad range of economic backgrounds, essentially eliminating inter-class competition for positions in the program. This program has also attracted a truly diverse group of students who represent a myriad of different ethnicities, upbringings and cultural backgrounds. True, it is the Service’s agenda to have an employee base that reflects these demographics as they are present in the American population – a necessary motivation for an agency that exists to serve and represent the people of its country; and it is in response to this need that the CIP helps to create a larger pool of experienced and diverse applicants for future hiring. Despite this intention it is important to recognize that sometimes the home-team advantage of rural living can facilitate unequal access to environmental careers. For instance, it may be easier for an environmental agency when that people has a lifetime of personal experience in the outdoors. One the other hand there are many people who may have a passion for the natural world who have not had the chance to spend their childhood chasing fireflies and stargazing from grassy pastures. As with biological diversity within an ecosystem, diversity of perspective within the agency managing the ecosystem is also important. Recognizing this, one of the primary goals of the CIP is to invite people not only from rural, but from urban areas as well who have world views and life experiences that are important and often underrepresented in the field of conservation. Do not mistake this focus on inner city recruitment as a move to fill some arbitrary demographic quota. Reaching out to previously underserved members of our national community is not only valuable, it is an integral piece in the future image of conservation.
Students in the Conservation Internship Program are assigned to any of the Northeast’s 71 different National Wildlife Refuges for a summer of hard work and environmental education. At the beginning of their summer, interns gather at a central location to train and prepare for the many challenges they will face during the months to follow. Many students find themselves in new environments without modern conveniences such as internet access and in some cases flushing toilets. Others are challenged to develop problem solving skills that will help them address real life management issue at their refuge. Less obviously, other students may find themselves in cultural environments that are unfamiliar, giving them an opportunity to step outside of their usual comfort zones and develop the skills necessary to address any social challenges that may arise while still maintaining a professional attitude. All of these things are addressed during their training through guided group discussions and simulated management scenarios, after which each student is partnered with a mentor that is responsible for guiding them through their experience and addressing any concerns they may have during the summer. The program also includes panel discussions featuring past and present Fish and Wildlife Service employees who share stories of how and why they decided to pursue careers with the Service and give advice on what resources are available to the students who are interested in following in their footsteps. The need to get outside and escape from the long hours spent discussing summer plans is met by afternoon trips to the field where students meet working biologists, play games and explore valuable and diverse habitats. An afternoon kayaking trip is also part of training week tradition, giving the interns the opportunity to break the figurative ice and connect with each other in a less formal environment.
It is not uncommon for students like these to hear that “they are the future of conservation” and in fact, it would be difficult to argue otherwise. Every new generation holds with it the responsibility to accept, change and make their own the dreams of their elders. Rachel Carson was once the future of conservation and interns are reminded that although this description now applies to them, they will not always be able to call themselves such. Thus, the importance of leaving a legacy is an integral part of their experience. Throughout the summer students are encouraged to document their experience and with a little help from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Student Conservation Association, share their stories with a national audience in the hopes that they can further inspire young people to make meaningful connections with the world in which they live.
Story by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intern Chris Poulin.