Gaining the Confidence to be an Environmentalist

By Rachel Correll

November 5, 2019

It’s Monday morning. The coffee pot is empty. Staff of the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC) are filing into the South Conference room. It’s my first staff meeting and chance to meet everyone. Going into this internship, I felt a severe case of imposter syndrome. I had only ever known academia, spending the last 21 years of my life in school, college, and now a doctoral program. This was truly going to be a whole new experience. In the first afternoon I was assigned three tasks to complete this summer: find ways to incorporate climate change into watershed management, redo all the GIS maps from the last watershed management plan for a smaller geographic location, and communicate with stakeholders over projects done to protect water quality.

So, I began with what I saw as the biggest task to wrestle: climate change in watershed management. My supervisor had already kickstarted this portion with extensive research and writing. This work was exciting and fun. I felt that I had the experience in research and writing that I needed for this task. While climate change is not a new concept, the many ways that climate change could impact the watershed was boggling. Yet, there were few plans that directly incorporated climate change.

Incorporating climate change into management made me realize that I really needed a better understanding of the geography of the Ann Arbor region of the Huron River Watershed. Recreating the GIS maps from old watershed management plans was the perfect way to orient myself. This task showed me where there were heavy residential regions, endangered species, and more. Finally, with an understanding of where the future of the watershed was going and the geography of the region, I felt I was ready to speak with stakeholders about what they were doing to protect the water quality.

Admittedly, communicating with the stakeholders of the watershed proved to be the most difficult simply because these were very busy people to get a hold of! However, this task was also what shaped me the most this summer. It is one thing to decide what should be done in an office behind a computer but being a PART of the community is where you really learn the workings of the environment studied. Each phone call began very formally, but once I asked the question of where there were problem areas and what the community has been doing to combat those issues, the stakeholders enthusiastically launched into a list of items they were doing to help. There is no doubt that the community officials were passionate about keeping a healthy watershed.

Speaking with the leaders of the community made me realize I really wanted to involve the community more in my work. I want that knowledge bridge to be built and maintained. No one knows the issues of the environment better than the community that lives in it. Community involvement is key to best address issues found in the region and have people passionate about taking care of their environment.

Being a part of this team reminded me why what we do is so important.  Remembering that these are real problems affecting all of us can be all too easy to forget sitting behind a computer. I get to be a part of the movement to help communities in the face of climate change. I gained confidence over the summer with the encouragement of my coworkers and realizing that every small step forward by anyone, is indeed a step forward.

To say I was nervous would be an understatement, but the people there were amazing. They supported each other and worked endlessly. Everyone had their own giant list of projects, but never hesitated to step out and help elsewhere. These projects take weeks, months, sometimes years to get moving, let alone finish. There is a never-ending cycle of looking for grants, working on projects, celebrating every success, and back to grants. Work that can get tiring for even the most passionate. Yet not once did I hear one defeated or weary voice. It did not matter what they were faced with, it was not slowing them down.

It’s Monday morning. The coffee pot is empty. Everyone is energetic and focused. It’s my last meeting of the summer before returning back to school. We are about to learn who the next Executive Director of HRWC will be. With big smiles, my direct supervisor, Rebecca, a true powerhouse passionate about the community, is announced as the new leadership. With that, I could not have imagined a more perfect way to end my summer.

About Rachel Correll

Rachel Correll grew up in rural Upstate New York. In 2016, she graduated with two Bachelor of Arts degrees, geography and earth sciences, from Syracuse University. Currently, she is a PhD student in the Remote Sensing/GIS lab at Louisiana State University. Her focus is on community resiliency and flood risk perception. Rachel’s goals are to work with communities that are faced with the greatest impact by climate change through resiliency and disaster preparedness.