Florida International University: Office of University Sustainability; Naturalist Volunteer Intern
Jennifer Quintero is a Junior at Florida International University currently majoring in Sustainability and the Environment and Public Administration with the goal of working in the public sector as an environmental educator and policy maker. She works part-time for the Deering Estate as an environmental educator. During the semester she also interns as a naturalist on campus giving tours and leading volunteers on the university’s nature preserve all in the hopes of bridging the gap between people and nature. When not working she enjoys hiking, kayaking, and learning all there is to know about the outdoors.
I volunteered as an unpaid naturalist intern at Florida International University’s Office of University Sustainability. Their goal is to create a culture of sustainability by promoting environmental initiatives on campus and getting students involved. You can find out more about their goals and projects on their website: Sustainability.FIU.edu !
I chose this opportunity as it aligns with my goals in connecting people with the environment. At FIU, and as South Florida natives, we tend to undervalue the natural resources around us. By being a naturalist, I can do hands on work with the Nature Preserve at FIU’s MMC campus and interact with different projects that relate back to my major.
I connected with this opportunity by meeting people with vastly different goals. While some sought out to become environmental engineers, others wanted to focus on policy, and some just wanted to be outside. This internship allowed the flexibility to connect with one’s passion in a way that suited them. My internship allowed me to go back into nature and work with others again in a pandemic world. I got to see what months of inactivity and a lack of maintenance can do to a place. In this case it was FIU’s nature preserve.
WHERE & WHAT
On the first day of my 2020 internship, I went back to campus to find that everything was completely different to how it was the last time I saw it in March. Not only was it deserted, but everything was overgrowth. The weeds took over; not to mention the invasive species. The trails were overgrown on all sides and in some areas it felt like cutting through a jungle. That first day, our task was to disassemble the compost stall that was our big project in Spring 2020. The stall was overgrown and taken over by ants in our absence. Easy to say that wasn’t a simple task. Still, though it couldn’t all be done, it was a step in the right direction
The second task was a simpler one. As trails were cleared out, mulch needed to be spread across the ground. Though the task was simple, it wasn’t a cake walk. The sun still dredged across the sky and even in the shade of the canopy, it was hot. When it reached its peak, we proceeded to our office where I drafted an email to the Student Government Association, in the hopes of continuing to create a relationship between the two campus entities. There’s more to environmental work than pulling weeds, its about getting people to care and see things for the value that they have.
Arguably one of my favorite days while interning this semester. On this day I had the opportunity to give tours of the preserve to new interns. I got to take them through the tropical hardwood hammock, pine rocklands, and wetland on campus. Though it’s not the largest area, there’s a lot to say about each of those ecosystems. The tropical hardwood hammock with its abundance of flora and fauna. The endangered pine rockland and its fascinating fire ecology. And the wetland, our consolation prize for the destruction of half of the Nature Preserve in years prior. I always enjoy showing the tour to people who will someday have to give it themselves, they tend to listen like they’re going to have to regurgitate it later, when in reality everyone gives it their own flavor.
One of the busiest days. On this day, we got to work on the Urban Green Space projects that happen on the campus’ parking lots. They essentially act as pollinator gardens and habitat corridors for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds to name a few. There’s no canopy shade here though, but getting my hands dirty is one of my favorite ways to have fun. We dug into these areas, filled up pots with the soil, and plopped them back in. It is a way to ensure that plantings can happen faster when we get plants. We also got to weed the southeast perimeter of the preserve. In a way, its beautification isn’t it? So in one way, we naturalists are artists too.
On my final day interning this semester, we tuned into a Food Recovery, Diversion, and Donation webinar hosted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in association with FIU’s Chaplin’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. They spoke about ways to end food waste at the restaurant and hospitality level. Not something I myself have any connection with, but I love seeing how sustainability has a place across everything. It’s so interdisciplinary. I also removed some invasive vines from the wetland at the preserve.
In my entire experience, I think what worked best was really going out there and tackling what needed the most work. While its the instant gratification work that feels the best (like pulling weeds), I learned that the tedious stuff, the work that feels futile and unnecessary, is actually the work with the most payoff. Seeing those overgrown trails at the beginning of the internship compared to how they are now is honestly so fulfilling. I also saw that even though I didn’t want to work in the parking lot gardens, it was the work I was most satisfied with. I know from this semester’s experience that I need to put aside what I think I want to do and try doing what I don’t like. I want to continue to challenge myself. I appreciate the Office of University Sustainability for giving me that chance.