The Field Naturalist Program
Giving Field Naturalists the tools they need to move the world
Proposal Writing for the Switzer Fellowship Program
Personal statements written by past fellowship winners
Hilary S. Harp, 2005
Posted below is the final, draft of the Personal Statement of Natural Resources graduate student Hilary Harp, who won a Switzer Fellowship in 2005 participating in the Fellowship Writing Workshop during the winter semester, 2004-05, a year in which the personal statement portion of the proposal was limited to 1000 words:
A Chesapeake Bay Waterman
The sloppy brackish water lifted the Chesapeake Bay "bar-cat" out of the water into the crisp, early morning air. Diesel fumes drifted around me as we motored from Tangier Island out to the "Knoll": the best crabbing grounds on the Chesapeake Bay. My captain signaled. I lifted the scrape into the water, careful not to get the line hooked around my white work boots. After several minutes he heaved the net up and shook it into a worn wooden box, illuminating dozens of thrashing blue crabs. With a quick glance he picked out the two crabs that were about to molt. These early morning lessons illustrated to me that the watermen of Tangier knew crabs differently than policy makers, and even many scientists.
Four years ago I packed up my life and moved to Tangier Island, 12 miles from mainland Virginia. I was hired by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) to teach students about conservation and ecology, a position that I had wanted since spending my childhood on the bay with my Dad. Teaching was electric for me; I thrived in the constant challenge of trying to demonstrate the complexities of science to my students. Scientists provided the details for my lessons; the watermen provided the story. During my three years of island life, my favorite times were spent with watermen on their boats or in their office "shanties", where over the sound of bubbling crabs we discussed new regulations, the scarcity of crabs, and the weather.
The dwindling numbers of crabs in the Chesapeake Bay can be mostly attributed to habitat loss from non-point source pollution. However, the watermen have taken the brunt of the regulations. Limiting watermen's catch is a simple solution; dealing with the reality of non-point source pollution is not.
A St. Albans Farmer
Early this fall the phone rang on Mitch Montang's farm in St. Albans, Vermont. It was a member of the local watershed alliance. "You are the problem," he repeated emphatically to Mitch. What the watershed member did not realize was that this farmer had just spent thousands of his own dollars to reduce phosphorus run-off from his farm. The irony of the caller's comment struck me: Addressing the issue in this manner did nothing to help the watershed that his organization was trying to save.
Upon entering graduate school at the Rubenstein School at the University of Vermont this fall, I began working with Mitch and other farmers in St. Albans. It was my chance to develop the skills needed to solve the water quality problems I had seen for so many years on the Chesapeake. Just as the watermen of Tangier taught me about the water, the farmers of Vermont taught me about the land. Willing to work with me, they wanted to be part of the solution.
With high algal growth plaguing St. Albans Bay, the challenge is to find successful, cost-effective, and equitable ways to reduce phosphorus. Working with a computer scientist, an economist, and a natural scientist, I have helped to develop a hydrologic model of St. Albans. The real test is to include the people who are identified as causing the problems and the source of the conflict: stakeholders in the town of St. Albans. Combine these complexities with a watershed coordinator who has expressed frustration in working in this region of Vermont, the task is daunting. I began making the 45-minute drive to St. Albans several times a week to speak with citizens and decision makers about the history behind the town's water quality issues.
Recently I achieved the first of several goals: all of the different stakeholders came to the table, including Mitch and the confrontational member of the watershed alliance. More than a reflection of scientific study, the hydrologic model also has the capacity to reflect local knowledge and a town's commitment to work together on complex, conflict-ridden issues. This was just my first semester of graduate school; I am excited with what I will accomplish in the next three.
The experiences of working alongside waterman on Tangier Island, Virginia and farmers in St. Albans, Vermont, has suggested two ideas that I want to explore in my graduate education at the University of Vermont:
- If we want to improve the environment, what are the constructive roles that watermen, farmers and local experts can play in the development of policies to create better solutions?
- What role can computer modeling play in bringing people together to respond effectively to complex water pollution issues?
Understanding and drawing on people's desire to improve the environment is as important as understanding the complexity of our natural resources. Working with citizens offers opportunities to promote local creativity and problem solving. My Masters course work in Natural Resources will focus on public participation in policy and new avenues for planning. It seeks to address the problematic relationship between studying environmental processes and solving environmental problems. My coursework combines policy courses with conflict resolution and organizational theory. These tools are a part of the strong foundation I am creating to work with people to solve non-point source pollution issues.
After graduate school I will seek a position through which I can play a leadership role in connecting policy makers, scientists, and local citizens to solve environmental problems. In order to make major progress in responding to water quality issues, relationships need to be built with local citizens using their expertise to create innovative policies, and motivate them to work with scientists and policy makers. The action of local citizens, in combination with scientists and government officials will make effective responses to non-point source pollution and other environmental problems possible, and a priority in the American political system. Receiving a Switzer Environmental Fellowship will help me to achieve my goal of becoming a leader dedicated to innovative environmental problem solving.
Matthew Kolan, 2004
Posted below is the Personal Statement of Field Naturalist Matthew Kolan who won a Switzer Fellowship in 2004, a year in which the personal statement portion of the proposal was expanded to 1000 words:
"Everything tells the story of the universe. The story has its imprint everywhere, and that is why it is so important to know the story. If you do not know the story, in a sense you do not know yourself." —Thomas Berry
We had followed the bounding trail for nearly half an hour, but to my student, Jessica, the fisher did not yet exist. Even though this animal often passed through the forest just yards from where she slept, my mention of the word "fisher" brought only a blank stare. We flipped through my tattered field guide until we arrived at the page. She read the description slowly - absorbing every detail as she became acquainted with a previously unknown neighbor.
The tracks told the story. Experienced trackers often say that walking on the landscape without knowing how to track is like walking through a library without knowing how to read. The whole story can unfold like a novel—drawing the reader into twists and turns as a participating member of an ongoing drama. Jessica was becoming a member—embedded in the story of her place.
For most of the past 2.6 million years of human evolution, the natural world has been our ancestors' classroom. Children grew up exploring the mysteries of the place in which they lived and survival was dependent upon their understanding of how the pieces of the natural world interact. They were able to read the layers of the landscape in order to find food, shelter, water, and protection. Had they failed, we would not be here now. We have all come from a long lineage of naturalists rooted in a deep sense of place. Our brains are patterned to learn these skills, and our instincts drive us to connect with natural rhythms and cycles.
Today, many people have lost this deep-rooted sense of place and as a result have become disconnected from the very processes to which we are linked. Over the past 300 years, humans have begun to radically and fundamentally alter the biological, geological, and genetic makeup of the earth, oftentimes doing so without considering how these changes might affect other life-sustaining systems to which they are tied. While scientific discoveries have advanced our understanding of natural pieces, patterns, and processes, decision-making practices that integrate this collective understanding into responsible choices seem to be increasingly rare.
How do we begin to realign our lives and our actions with natural rhythms and processes? How can we use scientific discoveries to promote connection and stewardship rather than separation and dominance? These are my driving questions. Place-based education is my answer. Place based education is about building relationships. By pushing the edge of our understanding and developing intimate relationships with the more-than-human world, we experience a sense of place and cultivate a sense of ourselves. It is through these relationships that we discover our passions, our values, our worldview, and our place.
Over the past five years, I have tried many different approaches to place-based education. My resume looks like a laundry list of teaching experiences—evidence of my relentless pursuit of the essential ingredients and the common threads of successful place-based education.
The first step is simple: get outside and explore with reckless abandon. Dive deep into natural mysteries. Ask questions with passion. Thirst for answers. Connecting people with the natural world is easy. Flowers bloom on cue, birds sing, leaves change colors, animals leave stories in their tracks. Experiencing these events with our senses pushes a 2.6-million-year-old button and draws us into the story of our place in the world.
The second step, connecting people with themselves, is the hard part. How do experiences with the natural world define who we are and what we care about? How do they affect our lives and our choices? These are the real questions of place-based education, and they require the approach of a mentor—asking difficult questions, inspiring critical and creative thinking, drawing out passion. Place-based education is not about indoctrination. It is not about dwelling on the problems facing our generation. It is about inspiring people to develop relationships with natural processes. It is about linking our own choices to the community of life around us. It is about helping people discover what they care about.
More to the Story
We value what we know. How can people make choices that benefit natural pieces or processes that they don't even know exist? Jessica was not an elementary student from an inner city school who had never set foot in the forest. She was a recent college graduate from Brown University—a biology major who grew up in Central Massachusetts. But despite her educational achievements, she had yet to experience a deep sense of place.
At the University of Vermont, I am working to reverse this trend. Through a graduate teaching fellowship, I have been given the opportunity to turn vision into action by developing an undergraduate honors course called Sense of Place: A Modern Day Thoreau Experience. With support from the Dean of the School of Natural Resources and the Director of the Field Naturalist Program, I have had the opportunity to create an experiential curriculum that blends the science of natural history with self-discovery and challenges students with difficult questions about our place in the world today.
My quest to connect people to natural rhythms and cycles will expand this spring as I begin my Master's Project with Shelburne Farms, a 1,400 acre, membership-supported, National Historic Landmark and non-profit environmental education center. Over the course of an entire year, I will facilitate a student, staff, and community project collecting data on the annual cycles of plants and animals as they respond to seasonal changes. These discoveries will be published in a book or calendar showcasing the phenology of the Champlain Valley bioregion. This publication will serve both as a tool for place-based educational programs at Shelburne Farms and as a resource to alert community members, visitors, and educators to the times and places of exciting seasonal events.
Education that fosters a connection to natural cycles and develops a deep understanding of natural processes is crucial to understanding our place on this earth. Place-based education is not newfangled or cutting edge. In fact, it is ancient. It is rooted in both emotion and science. It emphasizes process over product, experience over information, understanding over memorization, values over achievement. It will ground tomorrow's leaders and help them to write their own story—empowering them to cultivate a foundation of ethics from which they can solve problems and make decisions that benefit the whole community of life.
Kristen Puryear, 2003
Posted below is the Personal Statement of Field Naturalist Kristen Puryear who won a Switzer Fellowship in 2003, a year in which the personal statement portion of the proposal was limited to 500 words:
The smell of smoke lingered as I began my evening patrol. We had completed our prescribed burn several hours before, yet there were still remnant pockets of hot embers to extinguish, their orange glow standing out against the black earth and night sky. Patrolling the paved road that served as both fire-break and property line for the Santa Rosa Plateau Ecological Reserve in southern California, I was struck by the significance of this barrier. On my right was coastal sage scrub protected by The Nature Conservancy and managed with prescribed fire. On my left was coastal sage scrub that was grazed, developed, fragmented and cut off from fire by every means possible. I was working to protect a natural community that was as threatened by development as by fire suppression. I was working to protect an island.
During the next six years I searched for effective ways to counteract the breadth and permanence of land fragmentation and development. I wanted to understand how to keep these isolating forces from degrading land, reducing biodiversity, and crippling the integrity of fire-dependent ecosystems. However I realized that to make sound land conservation decisions and effectively implement fire as an ecological restoration tool, I needed to understand more about the components of a larger, changing landscape. I came to the University of Vermont's Field Naturalist Program to pursue an integrated and analytical study of the pieces, patterns, and processes of natural systems in order to understand how they function as a whole.
This summer I will assess the habitat needs of rare and endangered forest birds in Vermont's Champlain Valley. Currently, bird conservation lands are islands of forest and wetland within a sea of farmland and houses. I will provide Vermont Audubon with recommendations for connecting these islands of habitat into a regional avian conservation network.
Upon graduating I will pursue two major goals. First, I must broaden the application of prescribed fire in declining fire-dependent natural communities. The careful reintroduction of fire is an essential part of maintaining a land mosaic that supports biodiversity. To be truly successful, I will work with land managers, fire departments, and scientists, and continuously educate the public about the science and rationale of prescribed fire. Second, I must develop new strategies for connecting and enlarging protected land areas, and generate new ways of assisting land owners with making their land part of a larger conservation system.
As the pressures of development and fragmentation mount against the integrity of fire dependent ecosystems and biodiversity, I see an urgent need for change in our land conservation strategies. Protecting land, by itself, is not always enough. For fire-dependent natural communities, it is necessary also to reintroduce or maintain the natural disturbance regime. For communities or populations that cannot sustain themselves on isolated "islands", it is necessary to make protected land part of a contiguous network of conservation space. My mission as an environmental leader is to pursue these two visions to protect and restore larger, functioning landscapes.
The following three examples are taken from early drafts of the Switzer personal statements, where the writers wanted to preserve the main idea of each paragraph, but tighten up the language to be more concise and emphatic. These were examples projected on an overhead projector screen for group discussion. In each example, the issue is not a matter of "correctness"—both original and edited version are grammatically correct—but of weaker and stronger ways of saying essentially the same thing. Such editing work especially important when a limited word length is specified, as each word needs to do good work and carry its own weight.
Editing Example 1
Saving the environment used to seem like a good idea. Such a good idea that, when targeting potential graduate programs, I chose the only one with environment-saving explicitly listed as a post-graduation requirement. But time and experience change many visions, and they have changed mine. Environment-saving no longer makes much sense. Short of a nuclear warhead detonated at the Earth's core, the environment is in no real danger from human actions. To the extent that they exist, new equilibria will be reached, and even if cockroaches inherit the planet, the environment will continue to sustain life. It is we who are in grave danger, not the environment, and it is we who are in need of salvation. (Amanda) [117 words]
Saving the environment used to seem like such a good idea
. Such a good idea that, when targeting applying to potential graduate programs, I chose the only one that with environment-saving explicitly listed environment saving as a post-graduation requirement. But time and experience change many visions, and so mine have changed. they have changed mine. The idea of environment-saving no longer makes much sense. Short of [a nuclear warhead detonated at the Earth's core,] nuclear war, the environment is in no real danger of total destruction from human actions. [To the extent that they exist, new equilibriums will be reached] And even if only cockroaches inherit the planet, the environment will continue to sustain life. It is we, not the environment, who are in grave danger, not the environment, and it is we who are in need of salvation. [106 words]
[simplify, clarify, expand]
Editing Example 2
Through the Rubenstein School at the University of Vermont, I am testing several hypothesizes that I formulated as an islander. It is through the framework of these statements that I have created the focus of my graduate education.
- If we stop blaming harvesters, watermen as well as farmers, for the decline of the environment and include them in discussions about the solution, they will have more incentive to take action for the environment
- If local citizens are included in formulating laws with water quality targets, they will help create regulations that are appropriate and meaningful to their area; they will care about the environment. (Hilary) [106 words]
Working alongside watermen on Port Isobel Island and farmers in St. Albans, Vermont, suggested two hypotheses I would like to pursue further in my graduate education at
Through the Rubenstein School at the University of Vermont: , I am testing several hypothesizes that I formulated as an islander. It is through the framework of these statements that I have created the focus of my graduate education.
- If we want to improve the environment, we need to stop blaming harvesters, watermen
as well asand farmers for theits decline of the environmentand include them in discussions about the solution, they will have more incentive to take action for the environmentto make it better.
- If we want to create appropriate and meaningful environmental regulations, we need to include local citizens in their formulation.
are included in formulating laws with water quality targets, they will help create regulations that are appropriate and meaningful to their area; they will care about the environment.[84 words]
[simplify, clarify, end-weight, condense]
Editing Example 3
I never made a conscious decision to become a naturalist: I was born this way. Not long after I learned to read, I was out in the yard identifying insects with an Audubon guide and making lists of their Latin names. I spent my days flipping over rocks to see the salamanders, centipedes and other creatures scurrying beneath them; or wading in the pond to visit a whole other world populated by tadpoles, newts, caddisflies, and giant water bugs. This early fascination with living things persisted through high school, and when I reached college it didn't take me long to choose to major in Wildlife Conservation. (Charlie) [106 words]
I never made a conscious decision to become a naturalist: I was born this way. Not long after I learned to read, I was out in the yard identifying insects with The Audubon Guide to Insects and making lists of their Latin names. I spent my days flipping over rocks to see the salamanders, centipedes and other creatures scurrying beneath them
; or , and wading in the pond to visit a whole other witness another world populated by tadpoles, newts, caddisflies, and giant water bugs. This early fascination with living things persisted through high school, and when I reached college it didn't take me long to choose to I majored in Wildlife Conservation. [101 words]
[simplify, specify, and keep parallel]
Field Naturalist Program - Department of Plant Biology
120B Marsh Life Science Building - 109 Carrigan Drive
University of Vermont - Burlington, VT 05405
(802) 656-2930 - Lillian.Reade@uvm.edu
Last modified January 28 2008 04:55 PM