Blazing her own (hiking) trail

Environmental geology and biology double major Emmalynn May’23 worked with the Montana Conservation Corps this past summer, mentoring students, maintaining hiking trails, and paving her own way for a career of protecting state and national parks.

Senior Emmalynn May led cohorts of teens in park trail maintenance excursions in mountainous Mont... Senior Emmalynn May led cohorts of teens in park trail maintenance excursions in mountainous Montana this past summer.

Beloiters are known for forging their own path, and that’s what Emmalynn May’23 accomplished this summer — literally.

As an expedition leader with the Montana Conservation Corps, a small nonprofit partner of AmeriCorps, Emmalynn taught high school students how to make fresh hiking trails, as well as dams, boardwalks, and other structures in state and national parks in and around Montana. The biology and geology double major also helped the teens foster intangibles like confidence, resilience, and teamwork — and has learned a few lessons herself along the way.

Emmalynn and her co-leader advised a two- or four-week crew of high schoolers from across the state of Montana. Each “hitch” site — including Yellowstone, Custer Gallatin National Forest in Bozeman, and the Pryor Mountains outside Billings, just to name a few — presented its own needs and challenges. At one, the crew cut back overgrown trails and made miles of new tread. At another, they built a french drain out of rocks and logs, or invasive species removal.

In addition to trail maintenance, the program’s curriculum included educating the teens about the park service and other state and local agencies and the history of the land (including its ancestral past), in addition to developing resilience and finding community. Although Emmalynn received five weeks of training prior to the first hitch, she emphasized how much she learned from her students on the job.

Emmalynn leads her crew on a forested trail. Emmalynn leads her crew on a forested trail.

“I really can’t speak more highly of these kids; we are so proud of them,” she says. Many of the teens came from unstable homes and were recommended to the program by case workers, parole officers, or military school officers. “I have learned so much in the short weeks I’ve known them. After hearing about their life circumstances, my patience and empathy have [risen] to a point I didn’t know was even possible.”

Of course, Emmalynn admits that this experience didn’t happen in a vacuum. She’s grateful for the environmental studies-geared courses at Beloit: “knowing what things are, where they are, and how they work in a systematic way.” During the duration of the program, she was constantly thinking about the courses she took with Carol Wickersham, including the Duffy Partnerships program and the sociology course, Practical Approaches to Social Problems.

“Intro to Social Problems has given me the tools to do really well with all sorts of situations and backgrounds that the kids are coming from,” she says. “The social capital that we talked about in class has been helpful with talking to project partners and with connecting kids with different opportunities they can pursue in the future.”

Speaking of the future, this summer has transformed Emmalynn’s hopes for her own career post-Beloit. The Maryland native is hoping to end up back in Montana, or at least out west. She already knew how much she loved the outdoors, but the experience of affecting change in parks has solidified her hopes of working with Montana Conservation Corps again, and later for an agency like the National Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. (It’s also given her a bit of the teaching bug.)

In the meantime, she’s looking forward to the rest of her senior year, which will include an ecology course, a landscape painting course (to complete the studio art minor she picked up), and a field geology class. Although she sometimes feels “ready to go” and move on to the next chapter of her life, she knows that this year has a lot to offer her.

“Knowing that I have this [career] on the other side has made me pretty excited,” she says. “I feel ready.”

Emmalynn, right, stops to snag a good view and some food with her cohort.  Emmalynn, right, stops to snag a good view and some food with her cohort.

September 30, 2022

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