Going Beyond the Classroom

One of the best things about being a student at a tribal college is the wealth of opportunities available through internships and student worker positions. I have been an intern for multiple organizations and I am always amazed at how much I learn. What’s equally amazing is getting to meet new people, including other Indigenous students who are undertaking their first experiential learning project. One of the students who I worked alongside this summer is Kayla Cleveland, a first-time intern on the phenology project at the Sustainable Development Institute here at College of Menominee Nation. Kayla is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and a mother of three. We attended the 2019 Indigenous Summer Planning Institute together and during one of the breakout sessions, we spent some time talking about phenology and her experience stepping outside of her comfort zone. Now that the summer internships are ending, I thought it would be good for other students to hear about Kayla’s experience.

For those who do not know what phenology is, you’re not alone. When Kayla first signed up for the internship, she had little idea of what phenology entailed but decided to take a chance. “I wanted to try something new, because I like learning new things. This was something different and I didn’t know what I was really getting into. But I kinda like that about stuff,” she says, laughing. “I like living on the edge.”

As she’s worked and learned, her understanding of phenology has evolved. “It’s a way of life, for the plants,” Kayla says. “It’s partially about the life cycles, like when a robin lays its eggs. It’s not like Indian time, but it’s the time that Mother Nature runs on.”

Kayla’s work consisted of collecting data on 12 specific plants across three forest plots. These plants are considered “indicator species” because of their specific sensitivity to changing conditions. Kayla and her colleagues, Brandon and Sharissa, watched these plants under the guide of their lead technician, Luke, and monitor their growth cycles over the summer, taking notes on their changing phases. The data on these plants helps to better inform climate change models for the Menominee forest by providing concrete examples of how a changing climate impacts the forest understory. Kayla and her colleagues were asked recently to present on their work for the community as part of the Sustainable Development Institute report-out, which for some of the phenology team involved delivering their first public presentations. While public speaking is close to death in the top fears that many people have, Kayla looks back on the presentation as a good experience and is looking forward to being able to share the things she has learned with her tribe.

While Kayla would have considered herself an environmentalist before, her experiences in the field have definitely changed the way that she sees the world. She has taken to caring for and watching the plants and trees. She’s particularly fond of watching milkweed and is looking forward to harvesting it next season.

I asked Kayla if she had any advice she would like to share with other students, whether they’re considering an internship or not. “Don’t be afraid to try new things,” she says. “It seems like this internship has opened up some doors for me and I was able to meet people that I probably would never have met, which I am really grateful for. I’ve learned so much, it was really a great opportunity.”

Jasmine Neosh (Menominee) is a student at College of Menominee Nation.

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