Committed to fostering connection with nature
Environmental educator Michelle Holland received the Spirit of NAIT Award for her accomplishments in environmental education, and commitment to mentorship, community-building and inclusivity.
From sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica to conducting biodiversity research right here at home, Michelle Holland knew that to have a greater impact on the environment she would have to come out of her shell.
Now a 4-time Emerald Award-winning educator through her work with the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s WILD Outside program, the NAIT grad (Biological Sciences Technology - Renewable Resources '11) says ecological research suited her shy personality, but when she was invited early in her career to help with public education initiatives, she knew it was the right move.
“It was intimidating but I knew that I could make a significantly larger contribution to society if I chose that as my career path instead of being a solitary researcher.”
Michelle prides herself on her resilience and ability to adapt to new challenges. She grew up exploring the outdoors through Scouts Canada and at her grandparents’ cabin on Lake Wabamun and says she knew early on that she wanted to work outdoors.
She learned about NAIT’s biological sciences program at a high school career fair and says she was attracted to the extensive practicums for experiential learning and to the smaller class sizes.
After graduating from NAIT, she volunteered for 2 months on a sea turtle conservation reserve in Costa Rica, night-patrolling for nesting sea turtles. After returning home, she earned her Environmental Resource Management certificate from the University of Alberta, followed by a Bachelor of Science with a major in biological sciences from MacEwan University.
Now an assistant manager with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, Michelle has provided hands-on environmental education to people of all ages for the past 10 years, developing 20 nature programs for the City of Edmonton’s John Janzen Nature Centre, Muttart Conservatory and Edmonton Valley Zoo. She says providing youth and adults with more interactive ways to engage with the outdoors can inspire them to protect their natural world.
“If they don’t know that there are fish in this beautiful ecosystem, if they think it’s just some water that flows behind their house, why would they want to protect it if they have no emotional connection to it?”
Educating through ASL
Michelle is passionate about inclusion and is her team’s only environmental educator fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), which allows her to fill a gap for those who are deaf and hard of hearing or are non-verbal. She says she keeps up with her skills by interpreting songs as a creative outlet.
“There are a lot of people using ASL in this city,” she says. “Not just deaf people, but people on the autism spectrum or just any sort of speech limitations, so it is really helpful. I’ve even taught my co-leaders how to do it so that we don’t have to yell at each other across the field – we can literally just sign to each other.”
Creating community connection
Volunteering is important to Michelle, who believes that what you put out into the world will come back to you. She regularly volunteers in the NAIT community, teaching bat box workshops to the biological sciences club, donating to club fundraisers and facilitating an Earth Day presentation for fellow alums.
Michelle says the greatest environmental challenge she sees today is the lack of connection and engagement in our natural world. She says the work that she does in exposing people to nature is important in raising awareness and empowering people to want to take action.
“I’d be very happy if people saw me as someone who helped either change a lot of minds or opened a lot of eyes to what is happening, and to the beauty of the natural world as well.”
Spirit of NAIT Alumni Award
The Spirit of NAIT Alumni Award is awarded to alumni who have made exceptional advances or achievements in their career within 12 years of graduation.
Story photos supplied by Michelle Holland.
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