3 Lessons Learned While Interning at Willamette Partnership

By Barton Robison

Barton Robison is a Masters of Public Administration candidate at Portland State University who did his field experience with Willamette Partnership.


Barton Robinson intern

While interning with Willamette Partnership for his graduate field experience, Barton Robison, shown in the circle, conducted a network evaluation, completed a communications strategy, and built a website for the Oregon Health & Outdoors Initiative. Photo / Harmony Burright

I came to Willamette Partnership with passion and a resume. Willamette Partnership is one of the key members of the Oregon Health and Outdoors Initiative (the Initiative), a network dedicated to eradicating health inequities in Oregon by increasing access to safe, natural areas. As a Masters of Public Administration candidate at Portland State University, this seemed like the perfect place to apply my passion for equity in a natural resources context, the area of focus for my degree. As I wrap up my tenure at Willamette Partnership, here are a few lessons I learned worth sharing.

Start With What You Know

Accepting the internship came with a challenge. The Oregon Health and Outdoors Initiative was in a state of transition when I arrived. The leaders of the network–Willamette Partnership and Oregon Public Health Institute–were in the process of figuring out their next strategic move. There were some guiding lights that gave direction to my project. I knew that an organization’s mission, values, and goals are what shape the destination everyone is trying to reach, as well as how they’re working to get there. The Oregon Health and Outdoors Initiative had a well-developed mission that instantly gave me context for the destination I was working toward, and its values–equity, collaboration, learning, stewardship, and listening–showed me how the team was going to get there. I routinely came back to these foundational statements throughout my time at the network.

Something I struggled with at the onset of my internship was figuring out where exactly I belonged, both within the Initiative team as well as within Willamette Partnership as a whole. Knowing the mission and values of an organization is like using the picture on top of a puzzle box to guide you through putting it together, instead of having to guess my way through connecting individual pieces. What at first seemed like an intimidating, laborious task was suddenly put into a context that I could visualize and understand.

In any new environment, I like to do my homework and find out what big-picture the organization is after. Not only does this help ground you in an organization, it connects you with your coworkers and community partners and provides an important context for the individual talents and skills you bring to your team.

Learn Your Weaknesses

It’s just as important to know what you don’t know as it is to know what you do know. With the mission and values as guides, it became clear that the first step toward any sort of progress would be an assessment to understand the Initiative network’s strengths and limitations. The Oregon Health and Outdoors Initiative formed three years ago and had already supported a handful of successful pilot projects around the state, but how did this work contribute to their vision of an Oregon where people have a deep connection to the outdoors, resulting in better health and stronger communities? More importantly, what opportunities could I identify to help accelerate the Initiative’s progress toward achieving their goals?

Because I hadn’t worked in a network structure before, I adopted an evaluation framework specifically for the public-sector and then tweaked it to fit the unique characteristics of the Oregon Health and Outdoors Initiative. The purpose of this evaluation was twofold: 1) to assess the strengths and shortcomings of the network over the past few years, and 2) to serve as a benchmark by which future progress could be measured. Upon completion, I had a much better idea of where the gaps were within the network’s progress, and from there I could come up with a work plan that made the most use of my professional and academic skills.

To be most effective in a new organization, learn where the organization needs help. While I could have selected any of Initiative’s strategic goals and fumbled my way through trying to achieve them, spending dedicated time to understand the shortcomings meant that the projects I selected to complete would have broad, powerful impacts on the network as a whole. It was a little intimidating to start my new internship by Nancy Drew-ing my way through the network’s weaknesses, but this was a critical step in ensuring my time here was well spent.

Use Your Whole Toolbox

One of the biggest surprises of my internship came when I completed the network evaluation, as the two most important needs I identified were 1) a communications strategy, and 2) a centralized website specifically for the Oregon Health and Outdoors Initiative. As an intern hired for my knowledge and expertise in natural resource management, this may have seemed like the ideal time to hire a contractor.

And yet, web design and communications strategy development are both skills I’ve picked up at past jobs. My career path resembles switchbacks more than a leisurely amble, and while it’s been frustrating at times to feel like I’m not working toward a specific professional goal throughout my career, it’s provided me with skills I would never have learned had I not taken risks and jumped between sectors. I was able to draw on my time as a marketing consultant to whip up a professional communications strategy, and previous experience working for a DIY website-maker meant that I could pull together a professional website in just a couple of days. Even though these weren’t skills I was planning on using during my internship, they were tools I could use whenever the situation called for them.

Don’t be afraid to translate skills you’ve learned in other contexts into what you’re working on right this minute. Keep a skills inventory document or spreadsheet that lists out all the personal, professional, and creative skills you have. Note where connections between them may exist and don’t be afraid to use every tool in your toolbox when confronted with complex challenges.

My time at Willamette Partnership was the cherry on top of my graduate school experience, and I’m so thankful to all of my coworkers and leaders for their insights and guidance throughout my internship. While I’m not sure where the future will take me, I know the skills and lessons I learned here will serve me in any context to which I choose to apply myself.


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