Oregon State University fisheries and wildlife student Chad Freeman spent last summer studying sea otters near Monterey Bay, California. He passed a lot of that time sitting in a pickup truck, drinking coffee as he listened to the beep of a radio receiver that told him a sea otter with a radio tracking collar was swimming offshore somewhere nearby. It all sounds pretty boring or, at the very least, lonely. But Freeman describes the experience as the highlight of all his 16 years of education and the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
Freeman was working as a summer intern for a University of California, Davis doctoral researcher, studying otter behavior.
"Finding a 30-pound brown fur ball wrapped up in kelp as far as 500 meters off shore is difficult," said Freeman, now graduated. "Though I became proficient at locating otters, it always amazed me that I could put three otters in one view of the scope, and many tourists who peered through couldn't pick an otter out.
"The hands-on work and the interaction with both people and animals during the internship taught me things that are applicable in the 'real world,'" said Freeman. "It was definitely one of the greatest experiences of my life and it confirmed in my mind that working with otters is what I truly want to do."
Freeman's summer working with sea otters did more than help him find his true calling. He also satisfied an important new requirement for the Bachelor of Science degree in fisheries and wildlife at OSU-participating in an intensive internship with professional responsibility and independence.
The two-year-old internship program is now a crucial part of the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife's revamped curriculum (see New Curriculum Emphasizes Learning From Experience, page 28). Students are required to complete a one-credit exploratory internship and a more comprehensive three-credit intensive internship. Most students complete both internships before or during their junior year.
Many students who become fisheries and wildlife majors are unsure of their interests and career plans.
"Most of our students are from urban areas," said Rebecca Goggans, coordinator of the OSU internship program and a wildlife biologist with Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife (ODFW). "They enter the program not knowing what they want to do professionally. They just know they want to work with or 'save' fish or wildlife. They've seen a lot of nature shows on TV, but don't know how that translates into a career. So the internship is one of the best ways to give students an experience that allows them to synthesize the skills and theories learned in class."
For the one-credit internship, some students attend several day-long professional meetings including Wildlife Society or American Fisheries Society annual statewide meetings. Others complete a "job shadow," spending time with a professional at work to see what a career may entail.
The more intensive, three or more credit internship requires that students experience professional levels of responsibility and independence.
"An internship can be a full-time summer commitment [intensive, three or more credits] to one day per week for a quarter [exploratory, one credit]," said Goggans. "Some are paid and some are unpaid. It all depends on the student and the cooperating organization. We'll work it out any way we can as long as the student gets the minimum 30 hours of experience for the one-credit internship and 90 hours for the three-credit internship. Most interns spend far more time than the minimum requirement."
Goggans requires the interns to submit progress reports, write articles for the public on their experiences, do a special project and revamp their resume reflecting their newly learned skills. Students are evaluated by a letter grade on their transcript.
Ninety-six students have completed intensive internships so far. Most have been field oriented. Others have worked in educational or outreach programs in nature centers with state or federal agencies. A few interns have participated in data analysis, environmental policy work or laboratory investigations.
More than half of the students have interned with ODFW. Another third have been placed with federal agencies including Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or with OSU fisheries and wildlife researchers.
About 15 percent of the student interns have been with private non-profit organizations, including the International Crane Foundation and Oregon Trout; for-profit, tourist-oriented, educational organizations, including aquariums, wild animal parks, zoos and the High Desert Museum; commodity-producing organizations such as Weyerhaeuser and Willamette Industries; or private consultants, including Ecotrust.
Interns come back raving about their new insights.
Most, if not all, interns come back raving about their new insights and increased understanding of field work, not to mention newly acquired skills and a broader perspective.
Above all, the experience helps students enter the last year of their undergraduate education with more focus, more confidence and a refined sense of what they want to learn and what they want to do after they graduate.
"The internship experience seems to make college much more meaningful for the students," said Goggans. "They feel like they are at OSU for a reason."
But as with real jobs, most internships have not been easy or all fun and games. There's mention of long hours, terrible weather, smelly samples to collect, rude tourists, uncommunicative supervisors, bad coffee and research fraught with politics and financial constraints.
In other words, they get a taste of the real world.
"They learn that research and field work is made up of a lot of stuff that isn't glamorous," said Goggans. "They sometimes have to do some boring grunt work like filing and analyzing data, but it teaches them that this kind of career is not always fun and exciting."
The students themselves make it abundantly clear how much they have benefited from these experiences. And it is obvious that many of the benefits gained are not those typically acquired in a traditional classroom environment.
For his internship Jaimie Wisnowski traveled to Wyoming last winter to work on the wolf recovery program in Grand Teton National Park and the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
"I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to work on this recovery program," said Wisnowski. "It enabled me to see firsthand the politics and limitations of reintroducing a wild species back into its natural habitat after [the habitat] has been significantly altered. I learned a great deal about the use and limitations of telemetry. I also learned how to determine if a kill site we came upon was most probably a wolf kill, or if it was made by one of the other predators that inhabit the area.
"I witnessed the behavior of the wolves on a number of occasions, which inspired me to further investigate this species. I was also able to be involved in a project that worked in cooperation with other government agencies, which can be difficult at times."
Spencer Rearden spent his internship monitoring salmon return in remote Alaskan rivers in a paid position for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He gathered data on the return to help establish quotas for commercial salmon fishing. He monitored, sampled and measured salmon passing up the rivers. And he learned a lot about fish politics in the North.
"Working for Fish and Game has sparked my interest in commercial fisheries management practices," said Rearden. "I also learned about cooperation [between agencies]. I not only learned about the biology of salmon, but the management side of salmon. I feel that I have better skills than I had before. I got a lot of experience about what it's like to work out in the field for large stretches of time, I understand a lot about the politics behind managing a resource and I can better explain the importance of salmon in rural Alaska."
Jennifer Duncan said her internship counting seals and collecting seal scat (feces) with ODFW in Newport was "smelly," but valuable. She counted seals at their haul-out sites (places on shore where seals gather) and collected their scat for analysis to determine what type of fish the seals were eating. Despite the odor, she enjoyed the internship. Plus, her experience later led to a seasonal job with ODFW studying harbor seals.
Working with the Oregon State Police in Springfield, Philip Strehle had an insider's look at fish and game regulation enforcement.
"I observed the many aspects of their [OSP] everyday work, from interviewing witnesses, checking people for possible violations, observing people for possible illegal activity, and understanding radio communication, [to seeing] how complaints are followed up [and] what is needed in order to give a citation," said Strehle. "When I witnessed a violation taking place, I took detailed notes and passed them on to the troopers. It's as close to the job as I can get without actually being employed."
"The hours are crazy, working dawn 'til dusk."
Working as a naturalist at BLM's Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area on the Oregon coast helped intern Nemesia Herzstein find what she truly loves to do-not just to work with animals, but to teach people about them.
"I love seeing people's faces light up when they learn something," said Herzstein. "I've had a lot of fun and some really cool experiences, like seeing a gray whale and her calf close up. I've learned a lot about wildlife, marine invertebrates and lighthouses.
"It's hard work," she continued. "You're outside a lot. There are unhappy visitors to deal with. Sometimes I have to tell people they're doing something wrong. The hours are crazy, working dawn 'til dusk. And then there's the kelp flies," she said with a laugh. "But most people are happy. I enjoy it."
Some of the internships are spent indoors writing, teaching or analyzing data or policy.
Mona Derby spent her internship with ODFW's office of information and education helping to research and write their yearly "Spring Fishing Forecast."
"Overall, my internship was so much learning, networking with the big guys in Oregon's fisheries [ODFW scientists and administrators], and fun!" said Derby. "Even at 7 a.m. with bad coffee and writer's block...no one will know that a girl who paints her nails is telling them what lures to use at the best fishing holes."
As an environmental policy analyst for the private, non-profit Corvallis Environmental Center (CEC), intern Jasmine Kelly worked with the city of Corvallis to implement a new policy. She researched a locally adapted "Little Environmental Policy Act" (LEPA), a small-scale version of the National Environmental Policy Act, which is the legal backbone of all environmental laws in the nation. She studied environmental policy tools, policy issues and methods of policy comparison.
Kelly said she knows that her work on the project has been integral to a new system of thinking within the city of Corvallis. She said the internship helped her decide to pursue a career in the political arena of natural resources.
The CEC and other organizations hosting interns are pleased with the program. In fact, demand for interns is far greater than the supply-there are four times as many internship slots than students available to fill them.
"For our off-campus partners, the internship provides the rewards of contributing to the professional development of a future colleague, grooming future employees and completing some extra projects, without a large financial or time commitment," said Goggans.
"We got a lot of good work out of our OSU interns," said Kevin Goodson, fish biologist for ODFW. "It helps us a lot. We have too much to do and not enough people to do it all. We are going to beg for more of them."
But the students receive the greatest rewards from the internship program. Just ask intern Chad Freeman.
"Since I first realized that I wanted to work with marine mammals, all I've heard is how difficult it is to get into that field and that no jobs are available," said Freeman. "Many people said plainly that I was wasting my time. After my experience this past summer and the possible opportunities that I have in my future, I feel like I am doing what everyone said couldn't be done. Not only did I get the opportunity to try doing something I had always dreamed of, I got to live it and I found out that I love it and I can't wait to go back."