5 Lessons Learned Interning This Summer

5 Lessons Learned Interning This Summer

Laura Wood out and about hiking in Oregon. She spent three months interning with Willamette Partnership this summer. Now she's getting ready for her final year in grad school at Duke University.

Laura Wood out and about hiking in Oregon. She spent three months interning with Willamette Partnership this summer. Now she’s getting ready for her final year in grad school at Duke University. Photo courtesy: Laura Wood

Many environmental nonprofits hire summer interns to develop talent in the field and increase their reach. I was fortunate to spend the summer interning at Willamette Partnership. My name is Laura, and I’m a graduate student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment studying environmental markets and water resource management.

This summer I worked on several exciting projects, including research on the health outcomes of green infrastructure and the development of guidelines for water quality trading programs. I hoped to gain some resume-boosting skills, contribute to innovative conservation projects, gain a greater understanding of the environmental market field, and explore Oregon. I have left Willamette Partnership having achieved those goals; but more importantly, my summer at the Partnership has left me confident that I can, and will, do great environmental work. In reflecting on my summer, I would like to share five important lessons I learned.

#1 Small Organizations Can Make a Big Difference

During my first week at Willamette Partnership, I was shocked by the breadth of projects tackled by a staff of seven. Three months later, I am still amazed at the organization’s ability to achieve positive environmental outcomes well beyond what its size seems capable of producing. I learned that this was largely possible due to the Partnership’s mastery of the art of network building (it is a partnership, after all), and the sheer talent of the seven minds who make it happen.

More impressively, however, is that Willamette Partnership is changing our perception of what is possible. They tackle environmental issues by reaching beyond the environmental world and mobilizing all sectors of society, including government, healthcare, agriculture, business, other nonprofits, and the public. This strategy is evident in their various partnerships, like the National Network on Water Quality Trading or the Sage-Grouse Conservation Partnership. Whether it’s a grassroots conservation effort to restore native oaks or a joint regional recommendation on water quality, they network to further each project they work on. I learned it does not take a lot of people to have a big effect, just the right people paired with the right approach.

#2 Do Not Shy Away From the Tough Problems

Environmental problems are inherently complex. Many conservation issues are so dauntingly large that I sometimes question their ability to ever be resolved. Willamette Partnership does not shy away from tackling the tough stuff. Take, for example, their efforts to create an adaptive management plan for sage-grouse in Oregon. The Fish and Wildlife Service recently avoided listing the threatened bird on the condition that all western states with sage-grouse habitat develop conservation plans. The conservation efforts enacted by the states are challenged by many strong-minded stakeholders, including energy developers, private landowners, farmers, local and state governments, and conservation groups.

Since the Partnership aims to catalyze new public and private arrangements to move communities toward sustainability, they took the lead in putting together important parts of the Oregon Sage-Grouse Action Plan. This was not a short or easy project for the Partnership, but it demonstrates how they are not afraid to get their hands dirty. For those of us who aspire to become leaders in the environmental world, this fearlessness is hopeful and empowering.

#3 Be Forward Thinking

When I first started my internship at Willamette Partnership, they asked me what I wanted to get out of the summer, and what tools, people, and support I needed to achieve my goals. I told them I would get back to them. At that time, I was not really sure what I wanted from the summer and was primarily excited to not be in school. I was focused on just that week, but they were already thinking about the end of my internship. I quickly learned this forward-thinking approach was commonplace for their organization. Early on in the summer, I listened in on a webinar on health and the outdoors. Afterwards, the Partnership’s executive director, Bobby Cochran, asked me how I thought I could use that information to advance my master’s thesis on that topic. I felt embarrassed for taking detailed notes yet failing to put thought into how I would actually use that information. Once I started to apply this forward-thinking strategy to other events and meetings I attended, I gained confidence and began to feel a stronger sense of purpose in my work.

#4 Thoughtful Collaboration Gets Things Done

Collaborative decision-making is rooted in Willamette Partnership’s approach to tackling complex conservation problems. I sought out a summer internship with the Partnership largely to learn how to collaborate with different stakeholders. While I understood the value of partnerships, I lacked an understanding of the time and thought necessary to make them effective.

This summer, I joined the Oregon Action Framework for Health and Outdoors core team. Willamette Partnership has partnered with several health-focused organizations to improve health outcomes and access to green space across Oregon. Within two years, the core team has emerged as a leader in health and outdoors programming, securing large grants from the government, private foundations, and outdoor recreation and healthcare organizations to fund their work, and mobilizing pilot programs in three of Oregon’s most underserved communities. I see the initiative’s success as the result of Willamette Partnership thoughtfully crafting a team with aligned priorities and specific roles, which allowed all members to capitalize on their strengths and, therefore, work together effectively.

Their thoughtful teamwork extends to many other examples. By working with communities to develop a common understanding of the problem and co-create joint solutions, they institute change. I will return to school knowing that effective collaboration comes from a supportive culture and structured approach. One in which the people, tools, and management are organized in a way that fosters progress toward shared goals.

#5 Empower Your Peers to Make Their Own Decisions

Throughout the summer, Willamette Partnership treated me as a peer, not an intern. They consistently sought my input on project developments, how to use new data, and in the events and meetings we attended. They empowered me to make my own decisions, which allowed me to produce high-quality work. The Partnership focuses as much energy on how to strengthen their organization from within as they do on the outcomes of their work. Simply put, working with Willamette Partnership is energizing. They express enthusiasm for one another’s ideas, ensure everyone has an opportunity to talk in every discussion, and are in tune to one another’s emotional wellbeing. It might sound a bit trite to laud the Partnership for valuing its employees, but the thought and care the organization puts into its team members goes well beyond appreciation. Ultimately, we all want to know that our work is more than just labor. I have left Willamette Partnership confident that my brain matters and the work that I’m doing has real value.

If you’re interested in learning about internship opportunities with Willamette Partnership, contact us at info@willamettepartnership.org.

Laura Wood is a graduate student at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, where she studies environmental markets and water resource management. Prior to Duke, Laura taught environmental education in Jackson, WY, wrote grants for a small nonprofit that raised money for Grand Teton National Park, and conducted white bark pine research for the Bureau of Land Management in Missoula, MT. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Colgate University and, when not studying, is likely exploring the woods with her field guide, cooking plant-based meals, or oil painting.

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