Internships Provide Professional Avenues for Students’ Environmental Passions

Serena Runyan

This summer, several environmentally conscious Whitman students flooded the internship scene. Their experiences ranged from collecting data in the field, editing radio advertisements or protesting with united mining workers, but all were able to put their passion and education to the test.
Junior environmental studies-geology major Collin Smith was able to spend his time outside working for Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation organization that advocates for grazing reform in national forests. Smith worked in the Utah Forest program under supervisor Mary O’Brien, who inspired him to pursue the internship when he met her on Semester in the West.
“Mary is an awesome negotiator and collaborator because conservation in southern Utah is the closest thing to a lost cause, I feel. I really wanted to get a view of how she works,” he said. 
As an intern, Smith spent plenty of time outside. One of his jobs was measuring beaver dams with his colleagues and compiling data in a computer program to make it more easily accessible. In addition, he counted a lot of grass.
“I was doing multiple different things, one of which was vegetation transects, which means going along a 100-meter tape, putting the box down every 10 meters and counting the grass inside the box, moving it again and repeating,” he said.
Smith hopes his internship experience gave him some of the tools he needed to be a leader within Whitman’s environmental groups, and most significantly for the divestment campaign.
“It’s going to get even bigger this year,” said Smith. “[O’Brien] never takes anything on anybody’s word … I think that’s something I learned that I can really apply. Show me the studies that back that up, because I can show you three or four that counter that.”
Smith’s positive relationship with his supervisor also gave him confidence to continue fighting an uphill battle for a cause he believes in.
“One of the things [O’Brien] said to me about the divestment campaign was, ‘you’ll win, because you’re right.’ That concrete affirmation about what I was doing and where I was heading … It’s a matter of perseverance, really,” said Smith.
While Smith worked under the Utah sun, senior environmental humanities major Jenni Doering worked as the communications intern for Wallula Resources, a small nonprofit in northeastern Oregon that focuses on the sustainability of the land and of the jobs within that area.
As a communications intern, Doering focused primarily on outreach. She planned events and created different advertisements to spread the word about what the organization had to offer. Though she spent most of her time at the office, Doering occasionally got the opportunity to get out in the community and conduct her own interview project for the organization.
“I decided I wanted to interview artists … on the ways the Wallowa county landscape inspires their work. I interviewed glassblowers, a potter, a wood carver and also a woman who takes underwater pictures of Salmon,” said Doering.
This personal work with members of the small community in which Doering lived was most inspiring for her.
“That was one of the big takeaways from this summer, was realizing how passionate a lot of these locals can be about their sense of place – what connects them and what connects other people to the land,” said Doering. “People just have such interesting stories to tell.”
Doering hopes to apply her summer to her last year at Whitman by incorporating her work into her senior thesis.
“I would love to tie the experiences I’ve had in, and make more sense of them,” she said.
Senior environmental humanities major Ben Ishibashi spent his summer as a Fossil Fellow at Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE), which combines environmental activism with social justice.
“At the same time that they’re fighting against coal companies they’re also fighting for people whose houses are getting foreclosed,” said Ishibashi.
Ishibashi, who is also a part of Whitman’s divestment campaign, hoped to gain experience with direct action when he accepted this internship. One of his fondest memories was scaring off the CEO of America’s largest coal company with giant puppets.
“His security staff was like, ‘These radicals are coming, it might be dangerous, you should probably stay away for the weekend.’ We really just had a bunch of puppets and stayed across the street,” he said.
Ishibashi did everything from protesting with thousands of miners to getting wage compensation for cheated employees of an environmental organization. He believes the interpersonal work helped him to be more assertive about the message he was trying to make.
“One of the hardest things that I wasn’t expecting was having to interrupt people while they were working. [But] if you’re passionate enough and believe enough in what you’re talking about, people will take the second it takes to listen to you,” he said.
All three of these students’ experiences with environmental organizations gave them clearer insight into what they hope to do post-graduation.
“I want to look in to radio journalism or radio storytelling,” said Doering. “It was very calming for me as a senior to realize I’m not as scatterbrained and unsure of what I want to do as I thought I was.”
Smith sees himself pursuing the sort of work his supervisor currently does, but not until after he spends a little more time outside.
“I don’t think I want to do field work my whole life, but certainly after I graduate,” said Smith.
And Ishibashi’s experience gave him inspiration for the future.
“I don’t know if I’ll find another organization like MORE, but it’s definitely what I want to be doing,” he said.