A Journey Awaits At WLA

This week’s blog is a guest post written by Lily G., an Ursids and Brookies alumni. Lily is active in her community as she holds a student position on her township’s Environmental Quality Board, serves as the president of the Horticulture Club, and is a member of the SAFE Club (Students Active For the Environment). She plans to attend college after high school and pursue a career in conservation law enforcement, education, or architecture.

The Wildlife Leadership Academy (WLA) is a non-profit organization that was established to create a community and network for students to learn and grow, while supporting them throughout high school, college, and into their careers. The mission of the Wildlife Leadership Academy is “to engage and empower high school age youth to become Conservation Ambassadors to ensure a sustained wildlife, fisheries and natural resource legacy for future generations”.

Each summer, WLA offers field schools that 14-17 year old students can apply to attend to study a species that is important to Pennsylvania. The current field schools that are offered are Bucktails (white-tailed deer), Bass (bass), Brookies (brook trout), Gobblers (wild turkey), and Ursids (black bear). During the field schools, the students are not only taught about their chosen species, but they participate in team-building, communication, leadership, and public speaking activities. Upon completing a five day field-school, students become certified Conservation Ambassadors.

In August of 2023, I became a three time alumna of WLA and its programs. I was first introduced to the program by my gifted education counselor as a freshman and I attended my first field school that summer. The first field school that I chose to attend was the Ursids camp where I became a Conservation Ambassador for the first time. That week changed everything for me. Not only did I gain confidence as a leader, but I began to learn and understand what that means to me. One of the best things about the camp in my perspective is the community aspect. I have always loved learning and specifically learning about science, but the support that WLA builds with its staff, mentors, professionals, and students is truly something special.

Lily sitting against a large tree while writing in her nature journal

After completing outreach throughout my sophomore year in high school, I became eligible to return to Ursids as a Youth Mentor. The summer of my sophomore year I attended Brookies as a student and Ursids as a Youth Mentor.

The Wildlife Leadership Academy has had a big impact in my life. I gathered a better understanding of environmental science while interacting with an amazing staff and class of students. We studied everything you can imagine relating to conservation. Some days, it seemed like they fit more content in than what would be covered in a week of school. During the week we spent time doing team building activities and building our teamwork skills, which prove to be vital in our friendly competitions.

I have been awarded two leadership awards from WLA. They both have really changed my understanding of leadership. The award is peer and staff nominated at the end of the field school. I started off my first Ursids field school as a pretty shy student. I was on the quiet side for most of the camp and I never would have realized that even though I may be quiet I still can be a leader. The second time I won the award, I had led an entirely different way. I was more passionate and outwardly enthusiastic. I realized that leadership takes on many different forms, and that is something I was able to bring home with me and begin to explore within my community.

Lily poses with her Leadership Award plaque

Like I’ve previously mentioned, the part of WLA that has stuck with me is the community that is built there. We start the week with over twenty unfamiliar faces, but by the end, we don’t want to leave each other. Being able to build these kinds of relationships is crucial in the development of successful leaders and in careers like the ones we hope to participate in.

I get asked a lot about why this program is important. To students like me, this is one of the best programs that you can be a part of to engage in environmental and conservation science outside of the school setting. We are introduced to people of all different backgrounds that have similar interests to us. We also get the opportunity to interact with professionals from across multiple states. Having this experience and knowledge before we even get into college is incredible because it gives a solid foundation to begin our journeys with. Personally, I have interacted with a handful of the staff during my three stays with WLA and knowing that I can contact them with any question I might have is an amazing feeling. The natural world is something that we interact with every single day, which is what a lot of people don’t realize. To be able to sustain that, we need individuals around to take an interest into it and manage it. Being able to provide education to students at this age ensures that there will be a future for conservation.

Lily shooting a bow at a target

Throughout my outreach journey I feel that I have started to make a positive impact in my community. I have held the position of my high school’s Horticulture Club President for the past year and I am an active member of our SAFE Club (Students Active For the Environment). Recently I was also appointed a student position on my township’s environmental quality board. In all three of these organizations I act as a student leader that helps to get students involved in the outdoors and the environment. During the past year I was able to complete and be a part of a handful of fun projects, including an American Chestnut tree restoration project. I have been working on recruitment within my school district and hope to pique the interest of another student just like me. I plan to attend college after high school and pursue a career in conservation law enforcement, education, or architecture. I am so incredibly thankful to those who have been and continue to be a part of my journey in environmental science and leadership.

The photos used in this blog belong to the author.