“What do you do for the Aldo Leopold Foundation?”
“What are some of the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s main focus areas?”
“Oh you must know ______________!”
Just two weeks into my fellowship I was peppered with dozens of questions and comments like these. I was representing the Aldo Leopold Foundation at the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference at Monona Terrace in Madison. I did my best to explain what I did at the foundation to well over a hundred people, although, admittedly, I still wasn’t exactly sure what that really was. Some of those people were even current board members or descendants of Aldo Leopold himself! Needless to say, I was feeling as if I were in a bit over my head. Starting any new position comes with its own unique set of challenges and a learning curve, but this was especially apparent as I set out to represent the Aldo Leopold Foundation at a public event for the first time ever. There was so much to learn!
How I Got Here
My path to the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s fellowship was not at all typical. Most associate fellows have graduated from college within the previous year. I, on the other hand, graduated nearly four years prior. The majority of those interim months were spent in Malawi, Africa while I served in the Peace Corps. Upon returning stateside, I was eager to begin working domestically and confident in my hire-ability. But while job searching, my over-inflated sense of confidence quickly had holes poked in it, and I was left feeling somewhat, well, deflated.
I had developed a great set of soft skills in the Peace Corps, but I was constantly hearing feedback from hiring managers that went something like this, “You did some great work in the Peace Corps, but your skills don’t quite transfer. We’ve decided to go with someone with more relevant work experience.” This was tough to hear. I knew I had the skills required for these positions or at least the ability to learn them. But, as I entered my sixth month of job searching, I got lucky. I landed a position with a small conservation nonprofit in a Wisconsin town with a funny name. While this was only a nine-month appointment and I had been searching for a permanent position, the allure of working for a nonprofit that was built around one of the most important figures in conservation was too much to resist.
Gaining Valuable Experience
Two weeks of training under my belt, and I had fledged, so to speak. I was out in the world as an ambassador for the Aldo Leopold Foundation at a well-attended conference, yet I knew there was so much more to gain in the months ahead.
My confidence, communication skills, and comfort level in public speaking situations have grown exponentially, and by the end, I relished opportunities to represent the foundation. But throughout my experience, I had the chance to do much more than just represent the foundation at events. As the months progressed, my work plan began taking shape. I designed, implemented, and led four new interpretive programs; coordinated volunteers in a variety of contexts; lead countless tours of the Leopold Shack; coordinated on-site programs and events; helped manage social media pages; and I even got to tag along with the land stewardship crew a few times to get some exposure to on-the-ground land management. There numerous other tasks and projects that helped me build and broaden my skill set in a “real work” setting. It has been this ambitiously wide variety of job duties that has empowered me as a professional, ready to take the next step on my journey.
Highlights of My Fellowship Experience
In September, I led one of the interpretive programs I had designed. Hosted at the Leopold Center, it was to honor and remember Nina Leopold-Bradley, Aldo’s eldest daughter. Nina passed away in 2011, but she had a bigger role in the founding and growth of the Aldo Leopold Foundation than any other single person. She would have turned 100 in 2017, so it seemed like an opportune time to celebrate her life and impact. What made this program so special was by no means a product of my abilities as a presenter, but rather as a result of the audience. It was one of my favorite moments. I was blown away as attendees started filing in and among them were one of Nina’s daughters, her step-son, four fellows who worked out of her basement, and other family members and friends. I quickly presented Nina’s bio, trying to do it justice. Then we listened to audio recordings of her voice, sparking the people gathered to share stories and discuss the many ways Nina touched their lives, impacted the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and made the world a better place. While this program was by no means the largest nor did it require the most work or planning, sharing this special moment with those close to Nina is something that will remain in my heart for all time.
All of the experiences and highlights of my nine months working at the Leopold Foundation are too numerous to detail, but suffice it to say they were eye-opening and some of the most formative and worthwhile I have had in my young career. I owe the richness of my experience with the Aldo Leopold Foundation to its staff. Access to their wide-ranging pool of knowledge was an immensely useful resource. I’ll miss them as well as the awe-inspiring and serene setting of Leopold Country, but now it’s time for the next big thing.