Growing up in the hectic city of Accra, Ghana, I always looked forward to visiting my grandfather in his remote village during vacation from school. It was the only time during the year that I got the chance to work with my grandfather on his farm. We would plant things like tomatoes, yams, cassavas, and my favorite, watermelons. I believe it was then and there that my interest in the environment was sparked. After I moved to the United States and became accustomed to the fast life of New York City, I began losing interest in nature and the outdoors, as it seemed that no one there cared about how their actions might affect our environment.
When selecting a high school I mainly focused on schools that specialized in math and science which, I had hoped, would lead me to an engineering career path. I loved fixing broken technology as a kid; it always fascinated me. As it turned out, of the 12 high schools to which I applied for admission, I was only accepted into the one that was my last choice, the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment (B.A.S.E.). Although initially I wanted to switch, I decided to give it a year.
As my freshmen year went by I began to realize B.A.S.E. had quite a lot to offer in the environmental field. B.A.S.E. is partnered with Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and with this partnership the school developed a program known as Field Studies, in which freshmen performed environmental activities that they learned in class. Some of these include water testing, planting and learning about tomato plants, and learning about macro and micro invertebrates. Doing this my freshmen year reminded me of my grandfather’s farm – and it made me decide to stay in B.A.S.E.
This decision proved to be worth it. In my sophomore year I was introduced to the Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program by one of the program directors at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I decided to apply for the internship position because, for the first time since I had been in the United States, I was starting to get interested in the environment again. I wanted to continue to learn what the school had to offer. I was accepted to participate in the LEAF internship from July 9 through August 9, 2009, in Block Island, Rhode Island.
Going into the LEAF program was one of the scariest things I had to do. It was the first time I left home for an extended period (a month), and with complete strangers. When we arrived at the Nature Conservancy’s Block Island Preserve, something truly odd caught my eye – the office was right in front of a zoo! I immediately knew the month ahead was going to be a very interesting one. That first night I looked outside, the sight of constellations was so breathtaking that for a moment I questioned whether or not I was still in the United States. I stayed out for at least an hour utterly hypnotized by the heavens.
The second day, we were introduced to an invasive species of plant known as black swallow wart, which was taking over certain areas of Block Island. The plant appeared innocuous to me until we learned about the harm this invasive species has on native species. My group and I were excited to remove the invasive plants because to us we were saving the world – one plant at a time.
As the month went by we learned an ever-increasing amount about nature. We learned about a threatened species of bird known as the piping plover, which is a federally endangered species that nests on beaches. In Block Island things were even more dire for the plovers, since none of their eggs had hatched in over a decade. Unfortunately for these birds, they instinctively choose to nest on beaches where people and their dogs tend to harm them. My group was stationed at a particular section of the beach enclosed just for the plovers, where we could teach people about the plovers and the small yet effective actions people could take to help ensure the safety of the birds. We grew so attached to these birds that even on our days off we would go to the beach just to check on them. Indeed, on the last day of the program, we went back to check on our feathered friends one more time before leaving.
The experiences I had while working for the Nature Conservancy LEAF program made me realize that there are people out there who love doing what I love, and that they are willing to help me. I went back to school the next year with a whole new perspective. I was suddenly all about conservation. I joined the recycling club in my school, and I made it a plan of mine to work for conservation organizations every summer. The next summer I worked at the Prospect Park Audubon Center in order learn more about what I could do in the conservation field.
When it came time to apply for college my senior year, I targeted schools known for engineering, as I still wanted to follow the engineering path. I was accepted into the Rochester Institute of Technology to study electrical mechanical engineering technology (EMET). After my first year in the EMET program, I realized that I was pursuing the wrong major. Though I was capable of doing the work, my heart wasn’t in it. I found it difficult to see how the degree would help me to protect the environment. After talking with my advisor, I changed my major to environmental sustainability. Since then I have loved every moment of my classes.
Participating in the Nature Conservancy’s LEAF program has helped my view on education evolve from the mindset of acquiring a degree simply to make money to pursuing a degree and a career that I can love every moment of – and which makes a difference in the world.
Photo of schoolchildren in Accra, Ghana by Anton Ivanov, courtesy Shutterstock.