Right about now, Vassar seniors are deep into their job hunts, searching for opportunities in their fields of interest as their college careers draw to a close. Last year, Education and Outreach Coordinator Maria Garcia ’15 and Research and Restoration Coordinator Ellie Opdahl ’15 were in the exact same position. Both biology majors, they learned through the department about the creation of a new Vassar organization: The Environmental Cooperative. Founded in June of 2015 with a grant received from the Helmsley Foundation, the Environmental Cooperative is a collaborative aimed at environmental education, research, outreach and engagement.
“We are a Vassar organization but we also want to work largely with the community, so we want to bring Vassar students out into the community to do volunteer work that is environmentally related,” Garcia explained. She went on, “We also want to bring the community to Vassar and build better relationships, with environmentalism and environmental issues being the glue that keeps everything together— the point of interest.”
Garcia and Opdahl were accepted for summer internship positions with the Cooperative following graduation, where they brought community members to the preserve as a destination point to get people engaged in the environment and in nature. They hosted a myriad of events, including a nature illustration workshop, outdoor yoga sessions, outdoor screenings of movies and nature walks on topics that ranged from the history of the preserve, to archeology, to frog species—often led by Vassar professors. After the summer, they were hired full-time for the rest of the year.
“The Environmental Cooperative is an organization that is trying to create a stronger conservation ethic in the Hudson Valley by bringing together different partnerships that already exist in the area into one central place,” Opdahl said.
Using the money from the Helmsley Foundation grant, The Cooperative is renovating the barn at the Vassar Farm to make it into a multi-use space for conservation efforts. In addition to office space for the Cooperative, there will be areas available for anyone needing space for any presentation or meeting related to the environment.
The Environmental Cooperative plans to create two new school programs for Poughkeepsie middle school students. The first, Healthy Habitats, encourages students to go on walks in the woods and learn to identify species. The other, Healthy Watersheds, is an initiative where students will go into streams and look for indicators of stream health.
The Cooperative isn’t just about these new programs, however. Opdahl explained that they are trying to make the environment more accessible. “We want to reach more people from even within the city of Poughkeepsie because they often don’t have transportation to get out to our preserve even,” Opdahl explained. “So I know a big part too is just trying almost to bring the environment to them.”
Garcia added, “You can find bits of wilderness and wildlife in the city. And I guess in terms of that we are bringing events to the city of Poughkeepsie, and we’re looking into getting lectures where people won’t have to drive.”
The Vassar Environmental Cooperative could not have come into being without the visions and work put in by many different people in the Vassar community. Professor of Sociology Leonard Nevarez is also on the Environmental Cooperative steering committee. Nevarez said, “I’m hopeful the Environmental Cooperative can serve as a coordinating hub and physical destination where researchers, students and community members can come together to advance awareness of our area’s natural environment and ecological systems.”
Professor of Geography Mary Ann Cunningham reflected on the overall benefits of the Cooperative. “I think it’s valuable to have a group that can coordinate research and project opportunities, both for people at Vassar and in cooperation with groups in Poughkeepsie and research groups farther afield,” she said. “To get good coordination, you need someone whose job it is to help build and maintain relationships. And that helps develop opportunities for students, both on campus and off campus. Ultimately I think the point is to develop resources for students who are interested in environmental education, research opportunities, internships and ultimately jobs.”
Garcia is hard at work trying to do just that. She’s looking into making the Cooperative a field work opportunity, and hunting for fellowships so that the Cooperative can pay students to work for them. “It’s all down to interest,” she said. “If you’re interested in the environment, if you’re interested in environmental education, it would be great if you came and talked to us about whether or not you are interested in these projects.”
In preparation for Earth Day, the Cooperative is setting up a few events, one of which is a cleanup in Poughkeepsie. “We’re hoping we can draw a large volunteer base from Vassar students to participate in the cleanup.” Garcia explained.
Opdahl summed up how she’s felt about her experience working for the newly formed Environmental Cooperative over the last eight months: “It’s fun to help build something off the ground. It’s sort of become this thing where you can see where it could go in the future and when you look back, there’s already been a lot of changes since you’ve started, and I really like that aspect of feeling like you’ve actually been contributing to something that’s growing at rates you can’t even comprehend.”