The National Geographic Society and The Nature Conservancy are remaking the stereotypical internship experience to better equip young adults from underrepresented communities with the tools they need to become conservation leaders.
The word “internship” typically conjures images of copy machines and coffee runs, with professional instruction almost an afterthought. In 2021, the National Geographic Society and The Nature Conservancy launched a new conservation externship program designed to give youth around the world a very different version of on-the-job training. Instead of being stuck in the mailroom, participants in this virtual education, mentoring and research program have the chance to learn the latest science from a host of experts—then put it into practice.
Eight hundred young adults from 123 countries and territories have already started to build skills for careers in conservation while engaging their local communities on topics that are both globally important and personally meaningful. Juan Francisco Suescún, who joined the program from Colombia, says the externship experience helped him connect more closely with communities of fishers in the Caribbean Sea who are facing declining fish stocks. “It felt like there was an opportunity to help people I care for a lot,” he says, “and also to roll up my sleeves and get to work for a cause that I find incredibly important.”
The Climate Communicator
When Ijunad Junaid first heard about the externship program, he thought it sounded too good to be true. The Maldives-based student had never participated in a virtual event at that scale, let alone one that seemed like such a promising opportunity. “I was thinking, what’s the catch?” he says. But once he was accepted, Ijunad found the community of instructors and fellow externs encouraged him to consider his love of environmental storytelling as a potential career.
As he developed his ArcGIS StoryMap, Ijunad had already begun launching an online environmental magazine called Moosumi, which means “weatherly” in Dhivehi, the native language of the Maldives. Then he opened the email that said his project was selected for seed funding. “I realized that this could be the push that we needed to finish the first issue,” he says. With money to pay for writing, editing and design, Ijunad launched Moosumi in early 2023. The first environmental magazine published in the Maldives has already drawn overwhelmingly positive feedback, he says, and a second issue is in the works. “I’m still not sure what the catch is,” says Ijunad.
“Internships are important,” says Lina Gomez, vice president for strategic innovation and youth initiatives at the National Geographic Society. “But they can be very limited and resource intensive.” Young people are often juggling school, home and work responsibilities, and most internships are in-person, which is not always practical. In 2021, Gomez and Kate Ireland, director of youth engagement at The Nature Conservancy, sat down to brainstorm a scalable alternative.
“We wanted to create something that would remove the traditional barriers of internships and focus on how young people, especially those from typically underrepresented communities, can build a skill set for leadership opportunities in conservation,” Ireland says. The result: National Geographic and TNC partnered to create a unique online training and mentoring experience for young people aged 18 to 25, with the help of facilitating group Paragon One.
The initial focus would be on freshwater and marine and community conservation, and participants could be based anywhere in the world. After eight months of planning and coordination, the first eight-week program started in fall 2021. A cohort of 100 externs from 28 countries took live virtual classes on conservation topics and joined guest speaker sessions under the guidance of expert mentors, including National Geographic Explorers and TNC scientists.
As the program progressed, each participant selected aconservation issue relevant to their local community. Extern Ijunad Junaid was struck by the fact that many of his fellow Maldivians had little or no access to their island nation’s stunning coastal landscapes, and he worried that the island of Villingili was threatened by a land reclamation project. “I wanted to emphasize just how incredible and precious this island is,” he says, “and also point out the injustice of having so little accessible nature in a country that is world-famous for being beautiful.”
Mentors helped externs think about how their chosen topics might be addressed and communicated most effectively, and then apply their new skills to create interactive digital presentations called ArcGIS StoryMaps, which combined text, images and video. “I was impressed by their curiosity and their willingness to learn,” says Cornelius Were Okello, a biodiversity scientist at the University of Bern who served as a mentor. “You could see their StoryMaps getting more detailed, more streamlined and better thought out throughout the process.”
The Everglades Evangelist
Gabriela Tejeda joined the first extern cohort from her home in Florida not knowing exactly what to expect. “We were the guinea pigs,” she says. “There were a lot of questions on both sides, but everyone was open and communicative.” The diversity of the group was one of the best parts, she says. “I got to hear about different issues around the world, and we were still able to give each other input and feedback and brainstorm together, even though our ideas were drastically different.”
Tejeda’s ArcGIS StoryMap, titled “Fire & Water: An Ecological Love Story,” looks at how fire suppression has affected the ecology of the Everglades, and its key role in restoring the ecosystem. “I was thrilled to tell this story because it wasn’t the ‘typical’ marine conservation story we hear time and time again,” she says. In 2023, Tejeda was named a National Geographic Society Young Explorer. She says the program gave her confidence in networking and building relationships, and it pushed her to further develop her photography skills. “I wasn’t simply shooting photos and posting them on Instagram,” she says. “I was actually telling a story with purpose.”
There were a few challenges early on, Ireland says. Internet connectivity can be erratic for some externs—participants are offered a stipend to help offset any barriers to joining the program—and coordinating a single schedule across two dozen time zones isn’t always easy. “At first it was a little like building a plane while flying,” she says. “In 2021, everyone was already deep in Zoom fatigue, and we wondered if it would be engaging enough.” But engaging with experts and fellow participants proved to be more than enough motivation for the externs. “They’re so on fire when they log in,” Ireland says.
“There were definitely some nerves at first, but the good kind, where you’re anticipating something life-changing to happen,” says Suescún, who visited fishers on Isla Fuerte—an island off the northern coast of Colombia—during his externship. “I was excited to engage with people who had so much experience working for nature.”
At the end of the eight weeks, externs can apply for seed funding to continue to develop their projects. About one in 10 who apply receive these extra funds after their proposals are evaluated by independent reviewers. It’s all part of the training, Ireland says—in this case, giving the externs experience applying for grants like professional scientists.
The Reef Champion
During interviews with fishers on Isla Fuerte, an island in the Caribbean Sea off the northern coast of Colombia, Juan Francisco Suescún heard story after story about how abundant sea life used to be around the small coral island. “Their grandparents said they could just wade through knee-deep water and pull up octopus and lobster,” he says. Local fish stocks have declined dramatically since then, and as part of the second cohort of externs in 2022, Suescún investigated how the fishers were navigating this new reality.
Seed funding allowed him to spend almost a month on the island, working and fishing alongside community members and understanding the challenges they faced—and what new solutions they were trying, like the man who set up a tarpon-farming pool from scratch in his backyard. “I’ve always loved documentary photography, and this gave me an opportunity to apply it to an issue that I really cared about,” Suescún says.
Once his externship project was finished, Suescún quit his job in advertising to pursue his passion for conservation. Having the practical experience on his CV has helped already, he notes. “I feel like it was a complete game changer in my life,” he says. “It allowed me to start taking bigger risks and really fight for the things that I believe in.”
Launching conservation careers
If numbers are any indication, the externship program is filling a void in conservation education: To date, there have been more than 25,000 applications for 800 spots. “I think we found something that really resonates with our audience,” Gomez says. “It just shows the tremendous interest globally for this type of experience.”
An additional cohort will launch next year with a focus on using powerful computer mapping systems for conservation, and plans are afoot to expand the program in multiple directions. A formal grant-writing workshop is on the list, as is funding for conference travel and setting up speaking opportunities at National Geographic Society and TNC events after each cohort graduates. “We want externs to feel supported by our organizations and know that we’re here to help them wherever they’re headed,” Ireland says.
Externs have already used the experience as a launchpad to full-time jobs at places like TNC, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oceana and the Smithsonian Institution. Some graduates have been named National Geographic Society Young Explorers. “It’s been great to see them translating the experience into full-time positions,” Ireland says. The long-term goal is to expand from the current 400 externs per year to 1,500 per year in 2027.
In the end, the program is all about opening doors and showing externs the paths others have taken, Gomez says, whether they’re National Geographic Explorers, TNC experts or someone else working to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. “What really energizes me is when our externs say, ‘Wow, I wasn’t aware of this career,’ or ‘This has really reinvigorated me to think about things in a new way.’”
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About the Creators
Writer: Julian Smith is a freelance writer who frequently reports on science and conservation. He is the author of the books Crossing the Heart of Africa and Smokejumper.
Illustrator: Muti is a creative studio based in South Africa that specializes in original artwork, from lettering to icons, digital painting to animation.