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CU Junior Ryan Robert Experiences New Kind of Learning Environment

By: Anne Gilmore, Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge

August 17, 2012

Ryan Robert wanted to get out of his shell. A rising junior at Cheyney University and Queens native, this city boy wanted to get outside and experience a new kind of learning environment. That’s when Ryan discovered the Student Conservation Association (SCA). The SCA mission’s is “to build the next generation of conservation leaders” by providing hands-on conservation service opportunities across the nation.  Working outdoors was a far cry from the jobs Ryan had in the past. “I wanted an internship outside. It wasn’t about conservation.” Taking the leap was the right choice, Ryan says, “because the next day, the professor in one of my classes stopped class and an SCA rep came in. It was kind of like destiny. Her name was Beth McCarthy and she was very helpful.”

The SCA trains youth for conservation internships located all over the country. Through a partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the SCA provides the Career Discovery Internship Program (CDIP) to place traditionally underrepresented students in summer internships within FWS. Ryan sought to connect with wildlife, and what better place than a national wildlife refuge? “I wanted to immerse myself in the everyday life of a biologist.” And that is what he did.

Ryan was assigned to the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in Wells, Maine. A mix of salt marshes, boreal forests, and sandy beaches, this was certainly a new habitat for Ryan. The refuge practices vary as much as the habitat does. “We remove invasive plant species, manage for piping plovers, do outreach” and manage habitat for other native species such as the state-endangered New England cottontail. Working outside awakened Ryan’s senses; “I don’t have to see a piping plover anymore; I can recognize it by its call.”

In addition to refuge-wide projects, Ryan embarked on some of his own. “I’m working on a guide to noxious plants and animals,” that is, species that are native but are not so popular with the public (read: mosquitoes, poison ivy, chiggers). To relay the advice, Ryan developed “Outdoor Frank,” a friendly park ranger character with helpful insight on these natural nuisances. For example, “Frank” advises eating garlic to help deter mosquitoes, a trick Ryan might himself utilize when out sampling nektons in the salt marsh.

After a whole summer of protecting piping plovers and wrenching out weeds, Ryan can say that this internship has changed him for the better. “It built me up as a person,” and when days were tough, Ryan found a support group away from home. “The FWS is like a big family…They’re so in tune with one another. When I went to orientation, I didn’t know I was meeting higher ups when I met Wendi Weber and Sharon Marino [both leaders in the FWS Northeast region]…They know each others’ first names.”

The greatest lesson Ryan learned is also the biggest challenge of conservation, he says. “You don’t see results overnight, but anything worth doing doesn’t happen overnight.” It takes the combined effort of many people to conserve wildlife for future generations. “It would be a shame to lose species just because people are invading their habitats. We need land and they need land, and we need to respect that. People don’t understand that you won’t see results immediately. It needs time to manifest into what it needs to be.” No matter what career Ryan pursues, he is “grateful for the experience and will always carry it with [him].”