Public Lands Stewards: A New Year, A New System

by | Land Stewards, Summer Camp

There is a certain personal power that possesses me and I believe it has propelled me through most of my bold, ill-advised, far-off and ultimately life-shaping experiences. That spirit goes along nicely with a sentiment from T.S. Eliot that I’ve come to own privately, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are”. T.S. Eliot was a seemingly depressed pessimist and not my ideal role model to quote but here he captures a playful optimism that guides me and fits nicely in the context of explaining the shift that my second AmeriCorps term has taken, serving as a Public Lands Steward from Mt. Adams Institute (MAI) where I am an environmental educator and outreach coordinator for Cascade Mountain School (CMS).

There are several handfuls of experiences I could recount, where I have charged headfirst into uncharted water; the common thread being that I sought them out. I applied for college, studied abroad in India, traveled while wwoofing, hiked El Camino trail, returned to India to teach, and finally served with AmeriCorps. Through it all, I have been fortunate to have staggering amounts of help from friends, family, and amazing strangers, who I should have known were friends. Looking at the patterns, as I like to do in my life, I get the sense that this ‘knowing how tall I am” is a big motivator in my life. Having the opportunity to prove to myself that I am capable…more than capable when involved in new challenges is kind of fun, when I don’t take myself to seriously. Recognizing the pattern is like recognizing a really bold friend in myself, one who believes in me and my ability to grow as tall as I please.

Cascade Mountain School fit in so nicely with my past experiences with children, education and environmental studies. I could see that there would be new material to learn, but I didn’t feel ‘over my head’. I worried, not about enjoying my summer, I knew that becoming an outdoor educator and instructor would be fun and help me grow as a leader; but I have always worked with children. From one to twenty-one, I have tried my hand at managing their needs and expectations, while I was in charge. I worried that as a 24-year-old woman I would be pigeonholed by employers as inexperienced in professional roles. Not having worked in an office setting, save for internships, and having worked so many roles with kids I started to think there was a border on the path I was taking, and it was steering me.

I loved my summer educator position; I grew in the role and remembered why it is I have worked so closely with children in my life. And as the summer ended, I started looking around for something new but with a nagging feeling that I was not really finished with Cascade Mountain School. I was offered a position to stay on for 11 months. I would be an educator and would become a Wilderness First Responder, but wondered what would fill the other months? I felt the water rise a little bit. The uncertainty of everything I would be asked to do and the opportunities I would encounter was creating an excited anticipation. There was a lining of nervousness: could I do it? What was it going to entail? Would the daily hum of the office routine get to me? And when? But this nervous uncertainty was that same intoxicating pattern of testing my medal that I had thrived under. I accepted the position with a happy-nervous-excited-curious bubble in my chest.

In the past 6-months, since I began my 11-month term, I have been tasked with and completed many things that I did not know how to do before. I’ve learned that there are many steps in the staircase to every CMS program. Most of it is juggling interpersonal communication and learning how to do it well, coordinating schedules (only by the power of doodle polls) and finding the best way to share events with the most people: is it Facebook? Posters? Soapbox? By tasking me with these ongoing projects, I have learned how to execute an event or program, as I expected; but there are many lessons that I’ve learned, which surprised me. Time management is one, although it may be my new life-long-learning task; I’ve recognized methods and practices that I’d keep and/or break in myself. Learning different work styles: from working individually, to on a team and always existing within the larger office scope is something that takes some time getting used to because it requires that I evaluate my role in different group contexts. I’ve found that in all these tasks I am learning the cycles of office work and getting to work in the professional office environment where I felt I was lacking experience. To sum it up, slightly, learning in this workplace over 6-months has made me confident that it’s not the tasks that I do not know how to do, it’s the system of work that I need to learn. Systems will change wherever I work but knowing that it’s not the work that is the challenge but finding out how it all works and how I can be productive in that system. This realization and seeing it in action at Mt. Adams Institute encourages me to find the places in this system for my own learning, growth and voice.

There are also several exciting new endeavors for CMS, that grow from the existing system but I have been part of envisioning, planning and moving these new projects forward. STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Art, Math) in the Columbia River Gorge area has come up, in a big way, and CMS is right there. We are creating new projects like STEAM kits, which would inspire kids to check out a kit and explore the world of STEAM. We are developing new custom programs, and tweaking systems for our robust summer camp programs to run even better this year. We have six news camps, including a field research course that I will be instructing and working with CMS educator Ingrid Dahl to develop the flow for a new two-week camp. The anxious part of all the new territory has subsided but it’s there as a reminder for me to be motivated. Now the motivation comes less from not knowing and more from knowing that I am part of a system or team that supports me and has helped me grow personally and professionally. The more time I invest in MAI, CMS, and the large community that continues to grow, the more I receive in return. Knowing that my AmeriCorps service is helping MAI grow is so fulfilling because I have felt welcome, appreciated and encouraged throughout both terms and I might never have known how tall I was if I hadn’t been given this chance.

In the remaining months of my term I have a good sense of how I’ll be serving. Planning ahead is a part of the whole time management lesson; there is still so much to do to transition back into spring custom programs and summer camps. I am beyond lucky to have the MAI team to give me guidance and Erynne van Zee, a real-life rock star, working with me everyday, to make all of it happen. I know I will plan for and instruct on three custom programs; help create STEAM Kits for Oregon and Washington; teach in-classroom STEAM lessons in O’Dell, OR; organize many CMS adult and family events; travel to schools in Portland to promote CMS; meet two new CMS educators; and instruct overnight camps as a newly certified Wilderness First Responder. All this and so much more.