photo of an old window with what appears to be names painted on it
This photograph by 20-year-old Wisconsinite Evan Eifler won first place in the Youth Multimedia Contest. Eifler attended the conference as a youth delegate.

Youth was a byword at the Conserving the Future conference. And the 18 youth delegates invited to Madison were treated to a handful of events just for them.

They got serious face time with Dan Ashe just days after his Senate confirmation as Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They sat down with national Service leaders at the Youth Challenge Project, also known as the youth summit. They met one-onone with Service employees in a speedmentoring session. They helped rid a local park of invasive species one day and had a youth social picnic at the same park two days later.

The structured events were designed to "force them to network and socialize with the Service," says Magdalena Tsiongas, a Conserving the Future fellow who helped coordinate the young peoples’ activities. But "in the hallways, when people came up to them, is what they enjoyed the most." During such encounters with Refuge System professionals, the youth could learn about SCEP (Student Career Experience Program), STEP (Student Temporary Employment Program) and who does which job at what refuge.

The highlights for youth delegate Nicole Bradley were the youth summit and the meeting with Ashe. The summit "made me feel like I was actually doing something to help, instead of just listening," Bradley says. The Service leaders "were so interested in hearing our ideas. The stuff that was so simple to us seemed kind of new to them."

Bradley knows that the hour-long audience with the Director was a rare opportunity: "He’s really the one who can actually put everything into action."

And Bradley, an incoming freshman at Iowa State University who changed her major from premed to wildlife biology after the conference, was blown away by the "celebrate what’s right with the world" presentation by photographer Dewitt Jones on the final day. "Not only was he a great speaker," she says, "he took my attention. He kept it. He gave hope."

The speedmentoring event—organized by youth engagement team chair Mao Lin (of the Gulf of Maine Coastal Program) and Alaska Region youth, partnerships and grants coordinator Kristen Gilbert—was a professional variation on speed dating. It took place in a hot, stuffy, dimly lit hallway of the historic Orpheum Theatre. And it had to be cut slightly short because of scheduling constraints.

Still, "the idea of speed mentoring is very cool," says youth delegate Marco Sanchez, a fisheries and wildlife major at Michigan State University. "It wasn’t the best scenario. In two minutes, it’s really hard to build up even a tiny relationship with the person who is mentoring you. It was good just to meet a bunch of different people. And, for me, I might contact two or three of them in the future."

"It was a great experience," says mentor Steve Agius, an operations specialist at Aroostook National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. "I interacted with the mentorees afterward throughout the whole conference...I wish I had had that opportunity 10 years ago when I was doing contract work for the Service."

When asked how the Service could do better by youth, Conserving the Future fellow Tsiongas, herself a June 2010 high school graduate and an incoming freshman at UCLA, offers two suggestions.

First, she says, "we should look to be bringing more SCEP and STEP students out to [routine professional] conferences when we have them."

Second, she says, when young people are invited to such gatherings, there should be an orientation session that introduces the youth to the Service, demystifies the flurry of strange acronyms and identifies the mission, best practices and career pathways of the Refuge System.

"If you just throw them in when they don’t know much about the Service," she says, "that doesn’t work" as well as it could.