By Katie Finnesand, Land and Resource Specialist, AI Land & Resources Department
The Student Wildlands Adventure Program (SWAP) hosted a week-long trip to the Southern Appalachians for Natural Resource and Wildlife undergraduate students. The mission was to provide hands-on experiences and a glimpse into State and Federal agency jobs in a part of the country that students may be unaccustomed to. This year, twelve students from the Western United States and Canada traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I was lucky enough to be accepted as the first student from Alaska.
The program began in 2017 as two wildlife biologists sought to bring one professor’s students from Tennessee to visit New Mexico, where the second associate had relocated. Upon traveling west, the Eastern students learned about the arid ecosystems and vast differences from their own temperate rainforest. The following year, western students traveled to the east, and soon Daryl Ratajczak and Robert Brewer started a non-profit organization with the goal of providing once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to underserved students. Each year, Daryl and Robert recruit students and “swap” host zones.
Students who attended the all-expenses-paid trip to Chattanooga, Tennessee last May were of varying ages and degree programs, including majors in natural resource management, environmental science, ecology, wildlife and conservation. All individuals shared similar interests and appreciated the unique adventures scheduled each day.
The group visited with different agencies and participated in a plethora of activities, such as working up a captured bear (preparing it for release), installing BrandonBark roosting poles and monitoring equipment for the endangered Indiana Bat (Myotis sodalist), sampling weights of hatchery fish, birdwatching on the Hiwassee River, touring the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, snorkeling the Conasauga River for freshwater species, visiting the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, touring a private bison farm, and rafting the Ocoee River. Whew! What a humbling experience.
The trip was a fantastic experience and I highly encourage other natural resource students to apply for the program in the future. It’s a great way to get a brief hands-on experience in jobs you might not otherwise have an “in” to, and a fast way to develop interest in a field you may not have considered before. Get more information by digging into their website at www.swapwildlife.org or on their Facebook page.
Special thanks to Ahtna’s Shareholder Enrichment department for reaching out with news of the opportunity and encouraging me to apply, and to Daryl and Robert for accepting me into the program. Tsin’aen!