By Sarah McVicar
Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship
When she first saw an email announcing the Conservation Corps’ IDEC program, Metropolitan State University student Antavia Paredes-Beaulieu didn’t expect much. “I didn’t really know what it was,” she explained. “I just clicked the link for the opportunity.”
The opportunity, it turned out, would be a momentous one that would put the chemistry major on a direct path toward merging her passions for science and racial justice into a career.
As described on its website, the Increasing Diversity in Environmental Careers (IDEC) program is a “college-to-careers pathway” for ‘underrepresented’ STEM students – women, racial and ethnic minorities, and individuals with disabilities – who are interested in pursuing environmental careers. The core elements are paid internships, a fellowship (including an academic scholarship) and pairing with a mentor who supports students in achieving their personal and professional goals.
“The more I learned the more it felt like a good fit,” said Paredes-Beaulieu, and the selection committee agreed. In spring 2019 she was asked to interview and that summer she was accepted – one of only 16 selected from more than 100 applicants across the state.
IDEC fellows are expected to attend school full-time during the fall and spring – meeting bi-monthly to forge relationships and engage in professional development – and participate in full-time paid summer internships. “Learning from the cohort, watching passions bloom and getting to see how diverse science really can be has been a treasure,” Paredes-Beaulieu said.
During their first summer cohort members rotated through the three main partner agencies – Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), and Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) – interning for a month at each, one division per day, before choosing one agency for their subsequent summer internships.
Paredes-Beaulieu and her peers were part of the very first cohort for whom, due to COVID, the first internships had to be adapted to a virtual platform. Nonetheless, the learning proved immensely valuable.
Students worked with a wide range of experts from park planners, botanists, and outreach and field workers to Human Resources staff. Paredes-Beaulieu was “struck by the passion they shared for their jobs.” For Paredes-Beaulieu and her peers, the personal stories were exciting: “We realized there are many different pathways to working in the field.”
The cohort’s experiences ranged from developing social media and outreach materials and creating reports to using geographic information systems (GIS) mapping tools, learning about wildlife conservation and reclaiming toxic pieces of land to address food deserts. “It was so different than anything I’ve studied,” Paredes-Beaulieu said. “It was real work and it was a lot of work. They didn’t give us busy work or treat us like kids – we were given assignments that were really going to be utilized. That felt very meaningful.”
Nor did the program shy away from addressing real issues, including the history of inequity in Minnesota and its relationship to environmental work. The cohort joined equity committee meetings, something that took on particular weight during the summer of George Floyd’s death. Program staff, said Paredes-Beaulieu, “were very conscious of including us in conversations and allowing us to air our personal grievances.”
Paredes-Beaulieu found the candor refreshing. Discussing the MPCA’s work around designated environmental justice zones, she noted: “They’re very practical in talking to us [about these issues].’How do you define people of color? Are you getting information voluntarily? Are you engaging people of color in conversation about air and water rights? How do you do it?’ Having a space that’s very data-driven and science-based but also at the intersection of environmental justice is what I truly love.”
For Paredes-Beaulieu these questions are at the core of her future in the field: “How do I marry science and racial justice? It’s my heart song, my passion; I believe you’re supposed to use your talents to make the world a better place and be a better ancestor for future generations.”
The concern for equity in the environmental field was shared by many of her peers. “I think a lot of us really felt like we would have to hide a part of ourselves to be successful in a science career,” Paredes-Beaulieu says, but “I found a real sense in which the agencies were striving to embrace diversity. They were really doing the footwork to be more inclusive, saying, ‘We know that there’s a lot of work to do. What do you see?’ They engaged us and invited our input.”
Another key aspect of the IDEC program was pairing with a mentor to provide individualized support and guidance. For Paredes-Beaulieu it was Kelli Bruns, Central Regional Manager at the Dept. of Natural Resources. “It was a personal connection first; career connection second,” Paredes-Beaulieu explained. “I wanted someone who had faced barriers in her career, someone I could feel comfortable talking with woman to woman.”
Indeed, as Paredes-Beaulieu described, IDEC staff truly care about each fellow as an individual: “They look at you as a whole person and try to figure out how to support your vision of success.” This can sometimes be a balancing act, Paredes-Beaulieu explained, holding IDEC fellows to high standards while recognizing that many are balancing financial responsibilities, childcare, and intergenerational homes: “They try to do everything they can to bridge the gaps that keep more diverse participants out.” The financial compensation the program provides, for example, is one “huge point of equity.”
For Paredes-Beaulieu, who is on track to graduate in December, her final summer is another example of how the program respects real-life circumstances. She’ll be interning with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and was given options of working in soil or water chemistry, but the positions would have required her to be gone during the week, something that doesn’t fit her life as a mom. “I don’t have that flexibility that traditional students have,” Paredes-Beaulieu notes. “So they said, let’s have a meeting and figure out how we can accommodate your needs.”
Everything, of course, isn’t simple or perfect. Paredes-Beaulieu acknowledges the cohort’s hesitation about working with the MPCA given their decision to approve a key permit for Line 3, a pipeline many believe could have devastating environmental impacts, including harming important land the Anishinaabe people use to grow wild rice. The cohort met with MPCA staff to discuss the issue and ask questions about accountability. Like others, Paredes-Beaulieu had reservations, having feared “being asked to compromise who I am for a job,” but ultimately decided to go forward with the internship.
Currently Paredes-Beaulieu is most interested in biogeochemistry and weaving together applied science, equity, and environmental justice. “My plan is to apply for work, likely at the MPCA, and get a feel for what that’s like,” Paredes-Beaulieu says. “I’m curious about getting my foot in the door and seeing what I might fall in love with.”
One of her biggest takeaways from IDEC: confidence. Many fellows, Paredes-Beaulieu notes, deal with something akin to ‘impostor syndrome.’ IDEC, Paredes-Beaulieu says, “stresses the idea of turning something that’s traditionally seen as a barrier into something that’s useful and will help you grow, that who you are – all parts of your identity – belong in the field. IDEC has been good at making us feel like an asset, like the next generation of scientists – that we have something new to offer that we can bring to the table for everyone’s benefit.”
Paredes-Beaulieu expresses deep gratitude for the IDEC experience and attributes it in part to the support of Metropolitan State. “That’s one thing about going to a small school devoted to equity and making sure students have access to everything they want or need,” Paredes-Beaulieu says. “I really appreciate that about Metro. I feel like I’ve been personally sought out for opportunities… and I’m very thankful for that.”