A City Girl’s Experience at Wildlife Leadership Academy

This week’s blog was written by Paloma M., a Brookies alumni. Paloma is a reporter who specializes in environmental and climate studies. She loves informing those around her about the latest news about our planet, with an emphasis on politics and media. She attended Wildlife Leadership Academy to get out into the world and learn more about the environment she was reporting on.

Environmental Conservation. From the need to protect areas like our national parks to keep species from going extinct, to the growing concern of climate change and how it will and is affecting endangered species, conservation is a large and open topic with plenty of things to look into. It’s a prominent topic in the media and politics these days. As a girl who grew up in Washington, DC, the political heart of our country, habitat conservation was something I had never considered. I only had previously known only a city that, even though it was one of the greenest cities in the country, had little to nothing about river and forest ecosystems, let alone how they were being endangered.

My conservation journey started when I saw my school offering AP Environmental Science. I asked myself, “What’s that?” Followed with, “The planet’s in trouble?” Ultimately concluding with, “This is interesting.” I signed up and loved the class, but the COVID-19 pandemic had taken away the one thing I wanted most of all: to see it with my own eyes. I was tired of reading about how forests were in trouble and how invasive species were taking over. The only forest I’d known my whole life was Rock Creek Park, which was nowhere near the magnitude the textbooks talked about and didn’t have many of the issues that the same books discussed beyond pollution. However, given my location and the circumstances of the pandemic, I lost all hope of that wish.

Then, “Eureka!” hit me. What if I did a program over the summer that supplemented what I had missed? After some searching, my mom found something. Wildlife Leadership Academy? Never heard of it, and it was pretty far, about a 4-hour drive for me, but it had everything I wanted. Experiencing first-hand all the concepts I’d learned up close and personal? Yes, please, and thank you! I would get the experience I had been longing for all year. So, I signed up. After a pretty simple application process, I was in.

In the weeks before camp, I was nervous. I’d never even done a sleep-away camp before. I recall being hesitant to accept my spot in the program. What if something went wrong? But after discussing it with my mother and a bit of back and forth from the camp through email reassuring me, I accepted. I arrived late on the first day thanks to the long drive, which didn’t help my anxiety at all. I remember walking into the room and finding my seat, realizing I was the last one who had arrived. Everyone kept on asking what county they were from and I recall being confused. I didn’t even know Pennsylvania had counties until this moment, and when I looked over at a state map marked with where everyone was from, I wasn’t even on it. I was in the lower right corner in the margins labeled “DC”. My group was in shock when they heard where I was from. However, I met my roommates, found some new friends, and pretty soon I felt right at home.

We then split into groups and went outside. I couldn’t help but look around in awe. Believe it or not, I’d never seen so many trees in such a disorganized heap! I was so used to the planned and planted trees of the city. But seeing all the forests around me like that for the first time was amazing. When we finished off our first day with nature journaling, one of my new friends came to me and asked me what I was staring at. I chuckled and replied, “This may seem crazy, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many trees before!” She couldn’t believe me when I said that, and several others came to laugh along with us. The camp continued as a mixture of lectures and outdoor activities. The lectures were a breeze because I always had learned about the environment from inside a classroom, separate from the outdoors, but that made the outdoor activities a challenge. I felt so lost the first time we went into the nearby lake looking for macro-invertebrates and fish. Through the help of our wonderful teachers and my friends, I got through it and had a ton of fun. I learned a ton about finding macros under rocks and dirt. We even caught a few tadpoles!

Getting to see all the animals and do all the tests I had only read about in books was the experience of a lifetime for me, and looking back on it now, I wondered how I could’ve ever questioned my decision to accept my invitation. I may have had no skills outside of a classroom, but the camp was still fun and educational. Never at any point did I think I couldn’t do something. I made friends that I’m still in touch with today and brought all of that knowledge from camp back to DC to share with all of my city friends! Outreach with the camp is teaching me that you don’t have to live next to a forest reserve or be great at hiking to be involved in conservation. I love writing, and the outreach opportunities that Wildlife has offered me so far have allowed me to do just that! I write monthly for the NextGen Blog in collaboration with my friend, I actively use the skills I learned at camp to make trifolds and lecture slides to educate others, and I’m working on starting a new podcast regarding conservation! In the end, Wildlife Leadership Academy is something that I would recommend to anyone interested in protecting local ecosystems. It was an experience to behold.

The photos used in this blog belong to the Wildlife Leadership Academy.