By Chloe Howard, Summer Education Assistant for the TeenNat Program 2023
Pepperwood is truly a beautiful place that aims to inspire conservation by doing. I recently graduated from Sonoma State University with a BA in Biology and over the last two months I was a Summer Education Assistant for Pepperwood’s TeenNat program. I love every moment I am lucky enough to spend on the reserve but before college and this career opportunity, I was a young TeenNatter myself in the 2016 cohort, ready to explore the natural world.
I was introduced to this program through my sister’s Girl Scout troop leader who recommended that I investigate it due to my interest in nature. There were many happy instances of field trips to local state parks and camping, which punctuated my childhood with fond memories of learning about the world around us. I thought this sounded like a wonderful way to immerse myself in nature for a summer, so I applied.
Before Pepperwood, I had an idea of the standard definition of “science.” It was very strict with lots of concrete rules one must follow in labs and other settings. I enjoyed it more than my other subjects in school but I believed I had a different role to play within it. What I did not understand at the time, was that STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) could be so dynamic and all-encompassing. I thought that engineering was the only way to enjoy my future. I went into the program thinking (like most 16-year-olds do) that I had my entire life planned out, with all i’s dotted and t’s crossed.
When I arrived at Pepperwood, I immediately fell in love with the rolling hills, lush ponds, and steady woodlands. After my first day walking around the reserve something in my soul settled. I found peace in the breeze that rippled across the land and the birds that coasted on gusts above the valley. There was simplicity in the way the world was concentrated into one foot in front of the other during hikes, nothing else mattered and I was allowed to let my personal struggles float away. There was time to only focus on the captivating flora and fauna pointed out by enthusiastic staff. It filled a hole in my heart that I wasn’t aware I even had. Past my initial instantaneous connection to the land, I was met with a group of people who suddenly all had the same interest as me, biology and natural sciences.
It was amazing to be a part of a group with a true passion for the natural world. I felt so validated and at home in the setting, and though I was a little shy, I was overjoyed to be there experiencing the reserve for the first time. I personally feel that being exposed to both the program leaders and Summer Education Assistants (SEAs) that were interested in fostering a passion for science was integral to the experience. To me they were knowledgeable GIANTS in the world of science that knew so much but also wanted us to learn right alongside them. I am eternally grateful to all who make TeenNat possible!
Throughout my time spent hiking and wandering I still held the belief that engineering was the path I needed to be on, though my confidence was beginning to waver. It was so unbelievably fun and deeply interesting. I was having the time of my life! What actually changed my path was the career fair, which takes place towards the end of every TeenNat experience! At the career fair I listened to a variety of speakers from all different environmental careers, but what sparked my interest was an entomologist displaying all the moths she had collected. I was immediately in love with that career, and it grew deeper during her explanation of the places she visited and the adventures she had experienced. I sat back and suddenly was able to envision a career in the open air and out in nature looking at bugs all day. Though a little naive about what an entomologist actually does, I left that career fair with so much optimism and enthusiasm. I wanted less math, more outdoor time, and to study insects! I felt like a dream was fulfilled that I didn’t even know I had until this program.
Pepperwood not only changed my career but my self-confidence. During the end of the program I was given the opportunity to share some poetry I wrote, which is something I had never before had the courage to do. I did end up crying happy tears at the end of the program recounting fond memories and a heartfelt appreciation for all involved from the staff to each of the TeenNatters with whom I was lucky enough to bond.
After my experiences at Sonoma Sate University doing field research both locally and on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, I finally returned home to Pepperwood this year. I loved this program so much I just couldn’t get enough, so I applied to be a 2023 SEA and it has been a wonderful experience giving back to TeenNat. With all my heart, I loved sharing my knowledge of the world of insects to this new cohort of TeenNatters. My goal for this summer was to follow in the footsteps of the SEAs from my own TeenNat experience and provide a welcoming, friendly space for participants to share their curiosity – like I had. Each morning when I arrived I was filled with excitement and happiness to spend another day enjoying the reserve and the TeenNatters’ budding passion for the outdoors. The participants constantly challenge me to think deeply about the knowledge I’ve gained, through questions about how to identify insects, why they might have those color markings, or why they behave a certain way. It has been such a joy to watch these teens explore the area and discover their passion for nature in real time!
As I walk into this new chapter of my life after college, I am grateful for the TeenNat program as a whole and hope it touches and changes as many lives it can.