Matches interns with local organizations
The third cohort of Western Washington University’s (WWU) Sustainability Pathways is engaged with 18 Methow Valley partner businesses and organizations, working to advance sustainability initiatives in the Methow and Okanogan valleys.
By applying their academic learning in paid practicum work experiences, the undergraduate students build professional skills toward eventual careers.
A fellowship program, Sustainability Pathways is place-based. And with the Methow Valley’s broad range of agencies, businesses, schools, organizations and farms, its engaged community, and its strong base of leaders and changemakers willing to mentor students, it’s an ideal place for the Sustainability Pathways program.
This “dynamic rural mountain community … offers amazing opportunities to learn, engage in community events and happenings, recreate, and participate in sustainability work,” a program description reads.
Sustainability Pathways Director Joshua Porter said that the 18 students in the cohort are learning to apply “systems thinking to community solutions” by working with organizations that are “committed to creating change that supports social justice, environmental quality, economic vitality and community health.”
Working with organizations and businesses like Methow Trails, Classroom in Bloom, BCS Livestock, the Shafer Museum, the Methow Valley News, TwispWorks, Room One and a dozen others, the student interns are contributing to the organizations’ work in urban planning, ecological restoration, energy studies, wildlife biology and food systems while accessing existing certificate offerings through WWU.
Two students are interning with the towns of Twisp and Winthrop, where both town planners are well-versed in the benefits of mentorships. Twisp’s town planner, Kurt Danison, mentored Winthrop’s town planner, Rocklynn Culp, when she was new. Now Culp is paying forward the mentoring she received from Danison by working closely with a Sustainability Pathways intern.
Another student is working with the Okanogan County Electric Co-op’s energy efficiency program, which Porter says “OCEC hasn’t had the capacity to do a lot with that recently.” The student is working on rebates for energy efficiency measures.
Other students are embedded in the Cascade Carnivore Program, collecting scat from rare carnivores to study the ways in which climate change affects what different species are eating. The crew leader for that project was in the first cohort of the Sustainability Pathways program in 2020, hiking more than 500 miles to collect 400 scat specimens from Canada lynx, wolverines, Cascade red foxes, and fishers.
“This program takes the students a step beyond being field technicians,” Porter said. “They’re learning not just how to collect, but also how to process data and manage projects. They’re training as the next generation of wildlife biologists.”
Porter notes that the opportunities for students to engage with organizations can be sustained beyond the 10-week program. One of the 2021 student interns worked with Room One on a policy platform for overnight rentals. She was later hired by Room One to work remotely on similar projects and is one of three Sustainability Pathways alumni who are still working for the organizations they did their practicum with.
“For some students this is some of their first work in the career path they are seeking,” Porter said. “And they get to do it in these healthy work environments with such supportive staff.”
“The mentors at the partner organizations have a real interest in helping this generation go into their fields,” Porter said. “It’s several layers deeper than the type of undergraduate internships most of us were involved in in the old-school model.”
In addition to earning credit for their internships, students are also compensated, some by the partner organizations and some by WWU or grant funding.
“To support inclusive access to the program, we have made this a fellowship program, so it is affordable for students,” Porter said. “That means work practicum placements are paid, housing is provided at no charge to students, and they receive an AmeriCorps education award to help cover tuition.”
The students who are enrolled as AmeriCorps members through new Civic Leadership and Engagement AmeriCorps program provide an additional 60 hours of community service on top of the 240 hours of direct service they are providing to partner organizations. Twice each week, field trips allow students to provide community service, such as restoration work, Firewise efforts, and volunteering at community events like the Fourth of July Arts Festival.
Porter doesn’t want the compensation component to be a barrier for organizations. “If the organization doesn’t have the resources we help them with grant funding,” he said. “About half a dozen of the internships are funded through WWU’s Climate Leadership Certificate.”
Sustainability Pathways is “aligned with WWU’s strategic goals in supporting student success with state-wide impact.”
By building inclusive access to WWU programs and degree paths in North Central Washington, where there is limited access to 4-year university degree paths, Sustainability Pathways supports Methow and Okanogan Valley youth in “being successful in establishing livelihoods connected to an emerging green regenerative economy and contributing to long-term sustainability and equity in our communities,” Porter said.
As the program builds capacity, Porter and WWU intend to expand Sustainability Pathways from a 10-week program to an 8-month residency from April to November, to follow the full growing season of partner farms as well as to engage further with the Methow Valley School District when students are on campus.
Porter said the program also received grant funding to invite Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs in “school districts across Okanogan County to participate in a community of practice to integrate sustainability into any CTE programs, such as construction trades, natural resources, agriculture, or business/entrepreneurship.”
It will be no surprise to learn that housing is a limiting factor for Sustainability Pathways. “We are approaching that with creative solutions,” Porter said, noting that WWU alumni and other community members are providing homestays for some students while seven others are living in The Farm House Inn in Winthrop. Owner Sue Otonicar “helped us tremendously,” Porter said. “She took The Farm House Inn off the nightly rental market temporarily to house these interns.”
Still, three potential partner organizations were not paired with Sustainability Pathways fellows this year because housing could not be secured, Porter said.
Porter said that Sustainability Pathways does not intend to compound the Methow Valley’s housing crisis by occupying seasonal rentals, but instead hopes to utilize ADUs and other unique spaces that wouldn’t otherwise be rented out.
In the future, two tiny homes on trailer will house two students each — the result of a grant Sustainability Pathways was awarded from the Sustainability, Equity and Justice Fund. Students, incidentally, developed that concept as a course project and then collaborated with Porter to write the grant — more real-world experience in advancing sustainability.
There’s a lot to be worried about regarding the overall health and sustainability, not just of the planet but of the physical and social structures that allow its inhabitants to thrive. But Porter said that he finds it “energizing” to talk to the partner organizations about potential projects.
“Approaching sustainability challenges creates huge opportunities,” he said. “Our partner organizations recognize that.”
Porter said that he recently spoke with Methow Recycles Executive Director Sarah Jo Lightner, who told him “how exciting it is to be alive right now,” with innovation and creativity providing pathways to change. Instead of bemoaning their lot — inheriting all the problems previous generations have created for them — young people get to participate in so many solutions. “That really resonates with these students,” Porter said.
For more information about Sustainability Pathways, visit sustain.wwu.edu/pathways.