“Why do you care about protecting wilderness?”
I pose this question to visitors every week in one of my classes. After three or four days in Denali National Park, I know that they’ve heard about as many facts and stories as their brains can hold (and that they won’t remember most of them). I reserve the last hour of my three-hour class for discussion, posing questions that I hope will not only let guests discuss with each other, but allow them the space to reflect on the importance of protection. Not just of Denali and our other national parks, but protection of all natural places around the world.
I fell into the role of educator naturally. In the spring of 2018, one year post-undergraduate studies, I accepted a summer seasonal position as a Field Educator with Denali Education Center. With this new position came new excitement as well as many challenges—truthfully, I had never been an educator before. The extent of my speaking experience was limited to short presentations in school. Before the first 30-minute talk for my new job in May, my hands were shaking. I stumbled through my presentation in front of eight visitors, telling the story of an early park biologist and conservationist as I tried to relearn how to speak comfortably, and well.
Nearly every day of my summer was spent giving presentations, teaching classes, and guiding hikes. With practice, it got easier, and something happened that I did not expect: I began to love educating. I taught our guests about the subarctic, explored the ecology of the Denali landscape, and led discussions centered on conservation and park management. Leading trail hikes taught me to manage time and think on my feet as I adapted to each group and trail individually. On campus, power outages gave me the confidence to teach from my heart, not from my slideshow. I did my best to share my knowledge of the area, but my goal was to leave our visitors with a lasting impression of Denali that would inspire them to take action and protect land near their homes.
In this position, I have found a new passion and purpose. I’m a natural speaker and explaining complex scientific and conservation issues comes easily to me. Through my positions in Denali, I gained valuable experience as I witnessed conservation controversies in action, and opened discussions about topics like climate change, hunting regulations, park management, and our place in this fast-paced world.
As a biology major at Gustavus Adolphus College, I’d always had a passion for science and learning more about conservation. I took more upper-level and advanced ecology classes than my degree required and expanded my writing skills with courses like Writing for Nonprofits and Creative Writing. The intellectual and emotional culmination of my college career was a three-week course in Africa: Conservation and Natural History in Tanzania. While on the camping safari, I learned to view humans as part of the earth instead of above it, and I discovered that conservation issues worldwide are far from black and white.
My first summer internship was in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’d been interested in interpretation but was offered a position working on the park website and road wayside exhibits. That position gave me the skillset that landed me a job as a Science Communication intern in Denali National Park, where I would return for four summers.
I stepped off of the Alaska Railroad train in June 2016 with duffel bags full of clothes and camping gear and my viola slung across my shoulder. Over the next two summers, I translated complex scientific research into understandable, digestive stories for the public using social media, digital exhibits, and web articles. I designed 70 research “science summaries” webpages for the Murie Science and Learning Center website, which generated ten times more pageviews than the previously uploaded PDF documents.
All of these experiences have undoubtedly shaped the person I am today. Denali—the landscape, the people, the work I accomplished—helped determine my growth in and after college. It’s heartbreaking to not return to a job, community, and land that I love so deeply, but that doesn’t mean this was my final summer in Denali. I know that I will be back with more knowledge and experience to work in the future. Denali may very well be my (permanent) home someday, in most ways, it already feels like home. But first, a little more exploring and learning is in order.
And now it’s official! I’ve been accepted into the graduate school program of my dreams. The M.S. Environmental Conservation program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is my next step in this field. The interdisciplinary experience will allow me to continue my scientific learning at a higher level while also building new skills like conservation planning, strategic communications, and program evaluation to prepare me for a leadership position in a conservation organization. No other program I have found combines my interests so well.
So why do I care about protecting wilderness? In Denali, I’m surrounded by glaciers, striking mountains, tundra slopes, braided rivers, and wildlife that is still considered wild. There is a magic here that I have felt since the first day I stepped off of the train, but has taken multiple summer seasons to fully understand. Denali is more than a place or a mountain—Denali is a way of life. By growing alongside nature, I have learned how to live more sustainably, take challenges head on, and inspire a love for life-long learning in myself and others. I have realized that I am dedicated to a life of hard work to forever stand up for the environment.