My summer in the Methow Valley with Sustainability Pathways

by Maia Heffernan

As I dropped into the valley on the twisting road of the North Cascades Highway, I did not know that I was driving myself into a transformational experience.

A whole summer living, working, and learning in the Methow Valley to study community-based sustainability and work in a youth advocacy internship sounded like a great experience to add to my résumé and a good way to kickstart my return to the “real world” after a year and a half of experiencing it from a screen.

It turned out to be so much more than that.

The community that all 16 of us Western students found with each other and with the residents of the Methow and Okanagan Valleys was the reminder that we all needed: we are not alone in our efforts to bring justice and peace and mitigate climate change. When we work together, no matter our differences, we can create truly powerful and lasting change.

Though I was working in youth advocacy in the Valley and am studying marine science at Western, this experience provided me with insights into who I want to be in this world, and how I can connect my varying interests as a professional once I leave Western.

The program that I participated in is called Sustainability Pathways, which is an immersive study and work experience that is offered through the Western office that opened last summer in the Methow Valley. The program is organized and led by Joshua Porter, a Methow Valley resident and Research Associate / NTT Faculty in the College of the Environment. The program is developing pathways for students to enter sustainability related fields while helping advance sustainability initiatives in the Methow and Okanogan Valleys. The program also works in close collaboration with the Sustainability Engagement Institute and the Climate Leadership Certificate.

The program supports a 10-week living, learning, and working experience over the summer in the Methow Valley. Through Western’s three-credit Campus Sustainability Planning Studio, the members of the cohort that stay in the Methow Valley participate in class two days a week to learn about the different aspects of sustainability and to design and propose solutions to a community-based project that is sponsored by community partners. Additionally, the program includes a paid, part-time internship experience. These positions are assigned to each cohort member after an interview, and they all fall into different categories of sustainability.

If you are a student who is looking to learn more about sustainability, work in the sustainability field through a paid internship, learn about the professional world, and form meaningful relationships with your peers and people you don’t even know yet, then this experience is for you.

In the Sustainability Planning Studio Class, we learned that sustainability encompasses human health, social justice, economic vitality, and ecological health. The different class projects and internship positions reflected these four spheres. One of the most impactful aspects of this program was that we were able to practice what we were learning. In the community, our projects and internship positions had direct impact on the wellbeing of both people and planet. It was rejuvenating to see that all the work that we do in the sustainability field can have tangible effects.

Of course, it was also extremely valuable to have a paid internship experience. Sustainability Pathway’s mission is to prepare young people with systems thinking skills for doing cross-sector community-engaged work. Gaining experience in the field from this program has been invaluable to my understanding of what it can look like to work in the sustainability field and what skills are necessary to excel in it. I was able to work on professional communication, organization, promotion, and planning skills. These are central to any sustainability-related job and the experiences I had in my positions made me confident in my abilities to enter the professional world.

Connected to this, Sustainability Pathways is being developed as a Career Launch program with a development grant through Career Connect Washington. This state-wide program is helping young people gain theeducation and job skills they need to confidently enter the professional world. With this, there are networking opportunities for students who participate in the Sustainability Pathways program; as well as many resources for how to excel in whatever we are interested in pursuing. This connection is unique and can connect students with a wide range and variety of organizations and people.

What stuck with me the most from this summer, though, are the genuine and meaningful connections I made with people. The Methow Valley community is so welcoming, and everyone was excited to have us Western students there. We were not just students that came in from a big university and helped out and then left. My peers and I all formed close connections and friendships with each other and with members of the community.

I am so appreciative of all that the residents of the Methow and Okanogan Valleys taught me about life in rural areas, what it means to truly be connected to place, and the value of doing hard work to improve the lives of those around me. I now have connections with impactful and wonderful people from all over the state. The Methow Valley is a very special place where ideas come together to make it better for everyone.

If you are a student who is looking to learn more about sustainability, work in the sustainability field through a paid internship, learn about the professional world, and form meaningful relationships with your peers and people you don’t even know yet, then this experience is for you. Even if you aren’t studying anything environmental, the skills and knowledge that you will acquire will only deepen your understanding of what you are studying and the role that we all must play in the future.

The application process for fellowship positions for summer 2022 will open next week. Visit the sustain.wwu.edu/pathways website to view fellowship positions starting Jan. 24.

Learn more about Campus Sustainability Planning Studio here.

Find out more about Sustainability Pathways program, and last summer’s cohort, here.

Friday, January 21, 2022 - 11:33am
Two young adults sitting outside on lounge chairs, next to a table with a microphone

Maia Heffernan, middle, working on an interview last summer as part of her work in the Methow Valley through the Campus Sustainability Planning Studio.