Earlier this year, I was selected for the 2021/22 cohort of the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program at the University of Washington. The program works with students who are early in their conservation careers and who reflect a diverse background of experience. The program spans two summers.
We spent the first summer learning more about the conservation field. Each week, the program has hosted guest speakers including BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) scientists, conservationists, and researchers. We’ve practiced nature journaling and learned more about the ways tribal communities are addressing the ecological damage of colonialism, working to mitigate climate change, and much more. In the second summer, participants are placed in various conservation organizations in the State of Washington for a two-month internship that supports our interests in conservation science.
At first, I was concerned about how I would feel being the oldest scholar in a group of mostly 19- and 20-year-old students. As a middle-aged person, I am painfully aware of the fact that I am no longer 20 years old myself, and that generational differences are real. Beyond missing pop culture references (and awkwardly sharing egregiously out-of-date references), I wonder, how important are these differences? And how do we embrace the different perspectives that come with being at various stages of life?
Returning to school at age 40, I was worried about being the oldest in my classes. I soon discovered that this concern was misplaced. One of the aspects of attending a tribal college that I have greatly enjoyed is the variety in age, background, tribal affiliation, and other social identities of the students. I am by no means the oldest in my classes or the only person to attend college for the first time at this age. All around me are people with families, many with full-time jobs, doing the extra work of getting an education. I have much respect for my fellow students, who are each grappling with their own combination of circumstances and striving to make their lives (and those of their families and communities) better.
As I grew in my comfort of being an older student in my program, and got to know more about these young people, I have been deeply impressed with the degree of concern, commitment, and love they’re bringing to their education and future careers. Young people, it seems, are quite aware of the social, political, and ecological crises that we are collectively facing. And unlike so many of their elders, they are not attached to the “status quo” and various systems of power that feel so impossible to change (but are fundamentally changeable).
In his teachings about the Ojibwe language, James Vukelich explains that the word for hope, bagosenim, is also related to the idea of making an offering, or leaving something behind. He explains that as we experience hope, or a desire for something, we must be sure to let go of our preconceived notions and prejudices. We must “be present and work for the future we want,” as this is the greatest way to cultivate hope—not just for us, but for the people coming seven generations from now.
As I leave behind despair and preconceived notions about age, I have been inspired by these young folks, who have given me hope for the future. Younger students see with unclouded vision what is broken and bring unfettered commitment to making the world around them better. Perhaps I can’t change the minds and hearts of everyone around me, but I can certainly uplift and support those who are coming behind us, and offer my confidence and encouragement that they can, indeed, make the world a better place.
Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.