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Brendan Kober, Colorado Plateau (2001)
Brendan Kober learned about more than just the plants, animals and indigenous cultures of the desert southwest when he took WRFI’s Colorado Plateau semester course in 2001. He also learned a lot about himself.
“In Utah, I learned how to apply myself,” Brendan says, “and that has allowed me to do anything.”
For Brendan, “just about anything” has meant a lot of things. Two years after leaving the Dark Canyon Wilderness Area, the last backcountry stop on his WRFI course, Brendan graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in geology and set off for Alaska's Juneau Icefield to study the impact of climate change on glaciers.
So he joined the Shackleton School, where he taught math and science and co-led a trip along the U.S.-Mexico border that explored identity and borders, both natural and manmade. Then it was off to the Chewonki Foundation, a camp and environmental education center in Maine, where he now teaches ecology, natural history and team-building to elementary and high school students. He also leads extended sea kayaking trips for Chewonki’s Pathways to Sustainability Program.
Brendan also credits WRFI with helping him realize the importance of advocacy and a sense of responsibility for issues all over the planet. At Chewonki, Brendan is responsible for climate change and renewable energy education, curriculum development, and advocacy of environmental, energy and food issues. He also is working on a first-of-its-kind renewable hydrogen project.
Elizabeth Andre, Canyons of the Rio Grande (1997)
You never know where your WRFI experience may take you: a new major, some insight into how the world works, perhaps a career path you never even knew existed. But sled-dogging across the Arctic?
That’s where it eventually took Elizabeth Andre.
Elizabeth had her first WRFI experience in 1997, when she took our Canyons of the Rio Grande course while enrolled at Iowa State University. She enjoyed her experience so much she took our Winter Ecology of the Northern Rockies course the next year. Her experiences with field-based education as a student influenced her to focus her career in the field. She received her M.A. in outdoor education from Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, and then began teaching for both WRFI and Outward Bound. Now a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, she is studying the ins and outs of interdisciplinary field-based education in more depth.
And then came the opportunity to go to the Arctic.
Elizabeth took some time away from her doctoral studies and joined the Will Steger February 2007 Expedition. Elizabeth teamed up with educators and explorers Will Steger, John Stetson, Abby Fenton and four Inuit hunters on a 1200-mile, four-month-long dogsled expedition across the Canadian Arctic’s Baffin Island. The expedition uses four Inuit dog teams to follow traditional hunting paths up frozen rivers, through steep-sided fjords, over glaciers and ice caps, and across the sea ice to reach some of the most remote Inuit villages of the world.
Their mission is to be eyewitnesses to the climate change that is already affecting the Arctic, and to raise public awareness about this important global issue. Keep up with the Elizabeth and the Will Steger Expedition on its website.
Amanda Hooykaas, Montana Afoot and Afloat (2004)
Most WRFI students come away fundamentally changed by their WRFI experience, but few take it to heart quite as much as Amanda Hooykaas did. Amanda, who is now studying for her Masters of Philosophy in Human Ecology at the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Maine, decided to take it home with her. How? She designed a similar program she hopes to implement in Canada within three years.
“My experiences in Montana continue to resonate in my studies and my daily life," says Amanda, who won WRFI's 2004 Matt Thomas Scholarship. "I view the world through a different lens. Today I encourage other students to connect with WRFI because I believe it to be one of the most profound experiences a person can have in her/his university career."
Amanda joined WRFI on Montana Afoot and Afloat in 2004, while finishing her Bachelor of Environmental Studies Co-op Degree (Honors) at the University of Waterloo. Her honors thesis looked at wilderness therapy and the effects of ecopsychology on at-risk youth. She worked two seasons in northern Ontario leading wilderness canoe trips for at-risk youth before beginning her masters degree. Her thesis will focus on "Placelessness: Reconnecting Young Women At-Risk through Wilderness Therapy."
Amanda also designed and coordinates Islands Through Time, an interdisciplinary summer college-credit program for high school juniors and seniors. Eventually, she plans to return to the University of Waterloo to pursue a Doctorate in Environmental Studies focusing on place attachment in adolescents.
Alex O'Rourke, Yellowstone to Yukon (2004)
When Alex O’Rourke took WRFI’s Conservation and Community in the Yellowstone to Yukon Region course in 2004, she wanted to learn firsthand about one of the world’s last intact natural ecosystems. Now she’s living in it.
Alex recently took a job as project leader for Katimavik in Castlegar, located in the beautiful Kootenay region of southwest BC. “Whenever I need some inspiration, I just look out the window at the rugged Selkirk Mountains,” she says. “They’re not too shabby.”
Katimavik, a program sponsored by the Canadian government, allows young adults aged 17 to 21 to travel across Canada and volunteer on a variety of projects in local communities. In this way, young people learn to appreciate public service, contribute to the well-being of the communities in which they work, and become more familiar with the regional differences and similarities of the world’s second-largest country.
Alex coordinates three different groups of 11 participants over the course of a 10-month period. Each group spends three months in Castlegar, where they work with local non-profit organizations. “It is challenging,” she says, “but I’m super excited.”
Alex graduated in 2004 from Bishop’s University, located in Sherbrooke, Quebec, with a Bachelor of Science in biology. After receiving her degree, she spent seven months volunteering on the Thai-Burmese border, where she taught English at a Burmese migrant school and a Burmese medical clinic in the bustling Thai town of Mae Sot. She made the move to Katimavik after working on land reclamation projects with Abandonrite.
Jesslyn Shields, Montana Afoot and Afloat (1997-2005), Colorado Plateau (1998)
Jesslyn Shields knows WRFI as well as anyone. She took two of our courses (MTAA 1997 and Colorado Plateau 1998) and served as a teaching assistant on the Montana Afoot and Afloat course for several years. She then turned these experiences, along with the experiences of 12 other WRFI alumni, into a research paper she wrote while completing her Master of Science degree at the University of Montana.
Much of her WRFI work took place on the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers. Now she's watching waters on the other side of the continent. After graduating in May, 2006, Jesslyn moved to her native Georgia, where she landed a job as watershed support coordinator for the Georgia River Network. The staff and board at GRN, as it is known, work to ensure a clean water legacy by engaging and empowering Georgians to protect and restore their rivers from the mountains to the coast.
“GRN is growing, and the two people in the office are swamped,” Jesslyn wrote in a recent update to the WRFI office. “They need someone to go out and talk to people in the other watershed groups to see what they need help with. That person is me.”
Jesslyn’s research at the University of Montana indicated that student experiences on WRFI courses inspired them to change their behaviors and attitudes toward the environment in a positive way. Additional longer-term research would be able to ascertain whether these changes actually took place once they returned to the “real world.”
Andrew Beckington, Montana Afoot & Afloat (2004)
Andrew Beckington has given up the school of nature for the school of law – at least for the time being. Beckington, who worked as a naturalist in Georgia since paddling the rivers and hiking the mountains of Montana with WRFI in 2004, just started law school at the University of Florida. He hopes to focus on environmental law to prepare for a career as an environmental lawyer.
“I use my experience at WRFI to apply to everyday life and, with any luck, my future job as an environmental lawyer. The WRFI course I took was an absolutely incredible experience – talented instructors and a well-thought-out course – that made me understand just how connected humans are to the earth and with one another. I have always enjoyed the outdoors, but WRFI solidified for me what it means to live on this earth: respect for the earth and one another as much as possible.”
Beckington worked as an assistant naturalist at Sea Island Resorts on Sea Island, part of a chain of barrier islands on the southeastern coast of Georgia. He took guests and members on kayaking adventures, nature horseback rides, and nature walks. He also led children's nature programs, participated in wildlife research on endangered birds, and rescued and relocated everything from rattlesnakes to pelicans.
Travis Belote, Montana Afoot & Afloat (1997)
It’s been almost a decade since Travis Belote glided down the Missouri River in a Wild Rockies Field Institute kayak, but he hasn’t forgotten his experiences on Montana Afoot & Afloat.
Belote is starting his second year on a PhD in biology at Virginia Tech, where his research deals with the effects of logging on biodiversity in the Southern Appalachians. Since completing the Montana Afoot and Afloat course in 1997, he also has led hikes and presented programs for the National Park Service in Denali and Great Smoky Mountains national parks, written reports and analyzed coal power plant emissions data for a clean energy advocacy group, conducted research on global climate change experiments, and mapped and classified habitats in national parks in Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. But WRFI, he says, is where it all began.
“WRFI truly was the genesis of my current life’s course,” says Belote. “Since my WRFI experience I’ve pursued several lines of work. Each of these positions has been an attempt to live the lessons learned with WRFI.”
Belote says his WRFI experience made him a much better student once he returned to university because he was better able to think critically and connect seemingly disparate issues. It also encouraged him to reevaluate his relationship with his home, and even his life in general.
“I remember at the end of my WRFI experience feeling like I knew more about Montana’s land than my own home,” says Belote. “And I think this is where WRFI changed me most – I came home and began asking myself: What do I know and what can I learn about this place? Where do I fit into my community? Am I taking responsibility for my actions? How can I help us better understand and protect our home? I’m pretty sure I’ll continue to ask these questions the rest of my life.”
In the meantime, Belote will continue his work on a large-scale replicated experiment looking at how different logging practices affect the diversity of understory plants and shrubs in southern Appalachian forests, and the susceptibility of such logged forests to the invasion of weeds and other non-native plants. All in the service of finding the best ways to walk lightly on the land.