When 17-year-old Tiffany Smith was accepted into The Nature Conservancy’s summer internship program, she wrote on her biography: “I expect this internship to change my life.”
She was one of three teens from New York City selected to participate in the LEAF internship program in Washington state. Washington’s other interns were Khadijah Michael and Tiana Cruz, both 17.
In July they said goodbye to their families in New York and flew to Mount Vernon, in the heart of the Skagit River Valley, for the adventure of a lifetime. The girls handed over their cell phones, moved into dormitory apartments and adopted a full-time work schedule out in the field with Conservancy scientists.
The Next Generation
LEAF is all about empowering the next generation of environmental leaders. One third of program alumni go on to pursue environmental careers.
Tiana, from Queens, is already planning to study environmentalism.
“I hope to get a degree in maybe environmental science, environmental studies, maybe wildlife conservation,” she said. “One thing I want to do is work with animals while traveling.”
The interns finished up their summer this August with a goodbye picnic. Tears were shed.
Over the course of their internship, the girls bonded with each other and with Conservancy scientists. That made it easier to be away from their families and be cut off from technology.
LEAF is a nature immersion program; participants don’t have access to cell phones, lap tops or television. That meant no Facebook – which was particularly challenging for the girls.
“It’s horrible,” Tiffany Smith said.
The first thing Tiffany and Khadijah planned to do upon their return to New York was log into Facebook. And they did – adding Conservancy staffers to their friend lists.
Back to School
They’ll take with them many lessons this fall, when they start each start their senior year in high school.
“The biggest thing I learned was about the salmon life cycle,” said Khadijah Michael, who is originally from Jamaica. She and the girls spent many days at Port Susan Bay, a Conservancy preserve and estuary that’s vital for juvenile salmon.
Tiana was excited to learn about composting.
“In New York, we don’t have a composting system. The landfill is so big, they transport it to New Jersey,” she said. “That’s why New Jersey doesn’t like us so much.”
The girls might look at their home a little differently now. They’ll go from one estuary – Port Susan Bay – to another. New York City is built along the Hudson River Estuary.
Estuaries are in trouble. They’re in decline around the nation, facing degradation from the cities that many of them border. But with girls like Tiana, Khadijah and Tiffany around, there’s hope for the future.