Internship provides environmentally focused senior a real view of future work
It’s the ideal scenario for a Pirate voyaging to a career with an environmental focus: a summer internship with an organization that works to protect, restore and preserve our state’s coast.
East Carolina University senior Dietrich Downing came to the SECU Public Fellows Internship program looking for a professional development opportunity that blended his love of geography, maps and the environment. When he landed an internship with the North Carolina Coastal Federation, the geography and environmental studies major said, “It was pretty much perfect.”
Funded by the State Employees’ Credit Union Foundation, the program partners undergraduate students with area organizations that are working to positively impact the region and its citizens. It’s an opportunity that benefits ECU students and eastern North Carolina.
Raised in Jacksonville, Downing understands the significance of coastal habitats and was eager to support the mission of the federation.
“This organization is doing something important. As they say, ‘No wetlands, no seafood.’ It’s a really important environment, and it’s going to be really crucial to protect it in the next 50 years,” said Downing.
With interns from other universities, Downing spent the summer planting native marsh grasses, participating in educational outreach events, conducting cleanups of local waterways and building living shorelines to help reduce erosion.
Downing got to travel across the region for projects and take in some of the most beautiful scenery the coast has to offer.
“I’ve been to more places than I’ve ever been in North Carolina: Oriental, Wilmington, Hammocks Beach, Wanchese. I got to see N.C. 12. That’s the first time I’ve ever been on the highway, and it’s a beautiful area,” Downing said.
During his travels, Downing took pictures of living shorelines that will help the federation in its grant applications. And he took on several projects where he was able to use his background in geographic information systems (GIS) to enhance the assignments.
“Dietrich is working on a few mapping projects this summer. One involves doing an assessment of our educational signage at sites along the central coast. He really elevated this project by mapping out the sign locations in GIS and uploading photos so we can view the sign conditions and rate them accordingly. This will help us keep track of sign conditions for years to come,” coastal education coordinator Rachel Bisesi said.
While his knowledge and talents proved beneficial for some of the federation’s priority projects, Downing found the opportunity full of enriching moments for personal and professional growth.
“It’s been humbling. I thought I would know more. I had to learn and relearn some things,” Downing said.
“I’ve learned more specific ways of doing things like conservation techniques, which I studied last semester and now get to see firsthand. It’s built on my knowledge of water management with concepts I’ll be bringing back to the classroom.”
Getting a real-world view of the field work he could be doing in the future, he said, “The work gets hot and muddy. It’s not as easy as I thought it was.”
The networking and office meet-and-greet aspects of the internship proved just as informative.
Bisesi said, “We introduce students to different professionals in the community that we work with so they have a chance to network and meet people who might have job opportunities for them.”
“Being in a professional setting in general was kind of intimidating because I’ve never really been in one before. It was an adjustment,” Downing said.
“We’ve had meetings with every staff member in the central office. They talk about what they do and who they work with and how they make things happen. So, I’ve been able to see what an organization like this does, how they operate and how things like this — like the living shorelines — get done,” he said.
Bisesi said funding can be a challenge at times for the environmental nonprofit, and the federation appreciates receiving support from the State Employees’ Credit Union to continue providing internship opportunities for students who have a real interest in the work.
“The PFI program providing the stipend for the students is key. Being able to pay the interns is really important. We are not, as a nonprofit, always able to do that. So, having that partnership allows us to provide an internship where students are still getting paid. It’s a win-win for us and the students,” Bisesi said.
Downing said that the experience has helped guide his future plans.
“It’s given me the chance I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I always thought I wanted to do something like this, but this internship has given me the confidence to feel like I really can do it,” he said.
“This is my No. 1 hope for a job out of school. It’s a variety of things we do, and you never know what you’re going to see out here. Working with a conservation organization like this, I’m doing something much bigger than me and in a time the world really needs it. I feel like this is something I could never get tired of.”