By Rob Rich
Swan Valley Connections 

Learning together: 22 years of Swan Valley Connections' college field programs and counting

 

Andrea DiNino

When students from Swan Valley Connections Wildlife in the West field program build a bear fence with local community members, they learn hands-on conservation skills, sustain rural livelihoods, and prevent wildlife conflicts – all at the same time.

It's May, and universities across the nation are growing quiet and empty. But in four days, college students will arrive in the Swan Valley for their first day of class.

Since 1997, Swan Valley Connections' college field programs have welcomed over 200 students who come eager to learn through experiences unmatched by their typical classes, labs and lecture halls. Some come hungry for hands-on training in conservation field techniques. Others want a broader, deeper immersion in the tangled social-ecological web that defines natural resource management in the rural West. Still more want examples of real people working in careers they've called dream jobs. Most of our students get all these things, and more, but rarely in the ways they expect.

If it doesn't happen heading east along the Blackfoot, or winding by the lakes of the Clearwater along Highway 83, something definitely happens to expectations as students turn west onto their first dirt road in the Swan. Once they cross the river, and come to a stop at the historic Beck Homestead, many students gulp in realization that this place is like no other. They realize they'll be living here, for more than a month, learning with peers in a place that looks nothing like school. But then – after a few days of jaw-dropping at the mountains, listening to the river, cramming into our Ford Expedition, sharing meals, using an outhouse – the real learning usually begins. Around that time, our students see this wild, working landscape as a classroom and a community, a place where they belong.


This sense of belonging is not just about the scenery, and it doesn't get doled out through a process that can be told, or taught. At Swan Valley Connections, learning happens as students explore the diverse, intact ecosystems within and surrounding our watershed and, at the same time, the ways that people live, work and play in these landscapes. Some of our students arrive with a sense of what this balance requires in the rural West, and for others the experience is fresh. But no matter what prior knowledge our students possess, the strength of our College Field Programs lies in the way that each of our students can puzzle out these kaleidoscopic tensions, together, in the place where they are most alive.

We stress interpretation over identification and our classroom is, in all senses of the word, open. There are no tests where students must answer either true or false. But by the end of their studies in the Swan, our students not only can distinguish a wolf track from a mountain lion track, but they can trace how the lives of these animals – and their own lives – connect.


To evaluate our efforts over these last 22 years, we reached out this winter to our former students to explore how their time at Swan Valley Connections shaped their lives. If there is one theme to be gleaned from this 2019 College Field Program Alumni Survey, it is this: experiential learning matters. A lot.

Students claimed "personal growth," "expanded world views" and "increased understanding of the natural world" as the top three benefits of their time here, but their narrative responses transcended even these categories.

"The program also challenged my former ways of critical thinking by exposing me to different opinions," one student wrote, emphasizing: "the best way to learn why someone thinks the way they do, especially when it's different form my own beliefs, is to listen to that person and find some common ground on which to build trust and a safe space for communication."

To make such a powerful statement, students need to confront the challenges, opportunities and varieties of hope that exist in the Swan Valley. They come to this place fledging into adulthood, choosing career paths and changing from all they've been to all they want to become. At such pivotal moments in their lives, they need experiences that can brand their hearts and minds and the most impactful experiences require a diverse, devoted community like ours.


What our students remember most are the shared moments with people like you, such as last fall, when 19 community members joined our nine students in an annual event to cut, split and deliver firewood to people in need (our 2018 team effort processed over 21 cords of donated wood).

Other students remember Swan Valley Connections' monthly potlucks, or the beloved homestay weekend, where students are paired with willing locals who give them an insiders' view on life in rural Montana.

So, as we gear up for our 22nd season of college field programs, we want to thank you for being a part of our students' experience. This is the next generation that will sustain the wild, working landscapes we love and your presence gives them a sense of possibility, and hope. This year our students will hail from colleges in Virginia, Montana, North Dakota, Vermont, Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York and between now and November they will be trying to navigate what it means to conserve this wild place we call home. We don't have all the answers for them, but, with your help, we can help them ask the right questions.

 

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