By Samia Alkhalili, summer 2017 LEAF intern at The Nature Conservancy
I walked into my first day of high school hating science – of all types. I wasn’t a fan of the outdoors, either. I’d never camped and rarely hiked. Nature wasn’t something I ever really thought about. But a lot has changed in the past three years, and I imagine that if I told the girl I had been how she spent this past summer, she'd laugh right in my face. That’s because I just got back from my summer internship with The Nature Conservancy, where I learned about environmental science and conservation, while spending all of my time outside. I even faced my fears and went on a hike in the middle of night with just a flashlight and the moon and stars to light the way!
As an intern with the Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program, I did a variety of different things at the Conservancy’s Eldora Nature Preserve near Cape May, NJ. My experiences couldn’t be farther away from the boardwalk and soft-serve ice cream that usually come to mind when thinking about the Jersey Shore. I was there to do conservation work like invasive species removal, building hiking steps, and even osprey banding!
By far, my most memorable experiences during LEAF involved the osprey, a bird of prey that has returned from the brink of extinction. We pulled on oversized waders and trekked through the salt marsh and then climbed tall ladders just to get a peak of the osprey chicks resting in their nest. We fitted the chicks with unique leg bands so that researchers can identify them in the future.
My routine classroom experiences were nothing compared to lessons learned outside. The hands-on work not only grabbed our attention, but helped us understand on a deeper level than any textbook could.
For example, I’ve watched plenty of nature shows, but they didn’t prepare me for actually witnessing an owl attack two osprey chicks, with the parent swooping in to rescue the third chick just in time. Even the Conservancy staffers had never seen anything like that before! Afterwards, we had the opportunity to examine the osprey carcasses to better understand how owl eat their prey. This internship was not for the faint of heart!
I found the LEAF internship to be character-building. Finally getting to step back and admire my work was incredibly rewarding in a way that I hadn’t yet experienced. There were so many first times for all of us – things that we would never dream of doing if we hadn’t been exposed to them.
For me, it was facing my fears and going kayaking. The first day was the most terrifying. I had never learned to swim, and falling in the water seemed to be a very possible fate for me. The constant reassurance from my teammates helped me not only conquer my fear, but actually enjoy my time in the water.
So what changed my mind about science and nature in the first place? I give a lot of credit to my environmental science teacher, who was one of the first people truly passionate about their job I had met. Eventually everything clicked for me, and I began drawing connections from nature and the environment to my everyday life and developing a deep passion for it. I joined the very hands-on environmental program at my high school, which helped spark a lifelong interest in both the environment and conservation. I was eventually guided to The Nature Conservancy, and once again my perspective on the world has changed.
I am now aware of all the different jobs that could be connected back to the environment. It is not all science. I love the idea of becoming an environmental lawyer. I have also realized that I not only want to help the environment, but empower the next generation inspire others to feel the same passion. All of my experiences, both good and bad, have led me to this point, and I regret nothing – especially not that first terrifying and exhilarating kayaking trip.