How a Summer Vacation Made Me an Environmentalist

TNC’s LEAF Program Rekindled My Love of Nature

Growing up in the hectic city of Accra, Ghana, I always looked forward to visiting my grandfather in his remote village during vacation. It was the only time during the year that I got the chance to work with my grandfather on his farm. We would plant tomatoes, yams, cassavas, and my favorite, watermelons. I believe it was then and there that my interest in the environment was sparked. After I moved to the United States and became accustomed to the fast life of New York City, I began losing interest in nature and the outdoors, as it seemed that no one here cared about how their actions might affect our environment.

Ishmael Ishmael Akahoho

When selecting a high school, I mainly focused on schools that specialized in math and science, which I hoped would lead me to an engineering career. As a kid I had always I loved fixing broken technology. But of the 12 high schools to which I applied, I was only accepted into the one that was my last choice: the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment (BASE). Although at first I wanted to switch immediately, I decided to try the school for a year.

As my freshmen year went by, I began to realize BASE had quite a lot to offer in the environmental field. BASE is partnered with Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and through this partnership the school developed a program known as field studies in which freshmen perform environmental activities that they learn in class. Some of these include water testing, planting and learning about tomato plants, and learning about macro and micro invertebrates. Doing this my freshmen year reminded me of how much I loved my grandfather’s farm and it made me decide to stay in BASE.

This decision proved to be worth it when, in my sophomore year, I was introduced to The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program by one of the program directors at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I decided to apply for the internship position because for the first time since I had been in the United States I was starting to get interested in the environment again. I wanted to continue to learn what the school had to offer. I was accepted to participate in the LEAF internship from July to August, 2009 in Block Island, Rhode Island.

Going into the LEAF program was one of the scariest things I had ever done because it was the first time I was leaving home for a month — and with complete strangers. When we arrived at the Nature Conservancy’s Block Island preserve something truly odd caught my eye: the office was right in front of a zoo! I immediately knew the month ahead was going to be a very interesting one. That first night I looked outside and the sight of the constellations was so breathtaking that for a moment I questioned whether or not I was still in the United States. I stayed outdoors for at least an hour utterly hypnotized by the heavens. The second day, we were introduced to an invasive species of plant known as black swallow wart, which was taking over certain areas of Block Island. The plant appeared innocuous to me until we learned about the harm this invasive species has on the native ones. My group and I were excited to remove the invasive plants because it felt to us like we were saving the world one plant at a time.

IshmaelPhoto by Benton HarrisThe night sky over Block Island. The sight of the constellations was so breathtaking that for a
moment I questioned whether or not I was still in the United States.

As the month went by, we learned an even more about how ecosystems work. We learned about a threatened species of bird known as the piping plover, which is a federally endangered species that nests on beaches. On Block Island things were even more dire for the plovers since none of their eggs had hatched in more than a decade.  Unfortunately for these birds, they instinctively choose to nest on beaches where people and their dogs tend to harm them. My group and I were stationed at a section of the beach enclosed just for the plovers so that we could teach people about the birds and inform them about the small yet effective actions they could take to help ensure the safety of the species. My group and I grew so attached to these birds that even on our days off we would go to the beach just to check on the plovers. On the last day of the program we went back to check on our feathered friends one more time before leaving.

The experiences I had while working for The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF program made me realize that there are people out there who love doing what I love to do and that they are willing to help me. I went back to school the next year with a whole new perspective on things. I was suddenly all about environmental conservation. I joined the recycling club in my school, and I made it a plan of mine to work for conservation organizations every summer. The next summer I worked at the Prospect Park Audubon Center in order learn more about what I could do in the conservation field.

When it came time to apply for college, I applied to schools known for engineering since I still wanted to follow the engineering path. I was accepted into the Rochester Institute of Technology to study Electrical Mechanical Engineering Technology (EMET). After my first year in the EMET program I realized that I was studying the wrong major. Although I was capable of doing the work, my heart wasn’t in it. I found it difficult to see how the degree would help me to protect the environment. After talking with my advisor, I changed my major to environmental sustainability. Since then I have loved every moment of my classes.

Looking back now, I can see how one summer spent working for environmental conservation shaped my view of the world. I went from the mindset of acquiring a degree simply to make money to thinking about pursuing a career that I would love every moment of.

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