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I am Mel. This is My Harvard Story.

I am Mel. This is My Harvard Story.

Reflections on Being an Educator, Mom, and Scientist

I sat in a small lecture hall at Duke University’s Biodiversity Days with ten of my undergraduate students and a group of world class conservationists.  I had just read Dr. E.O. Wilson’s new book, Half-Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life, and I couldn’t wait to hear him speak. As an instructor of environmental science and outdoor education at a small liberal arts university and a former public school science teacher, I had spent seventeen years connecting children and college students to nature through field studies and experiential learning.  For my first thesis I studied greenways and trails and how they affect neurobehavioral outcomes, so I was thrilled to hear the Tompkins Foundation share about “La Ruta de Parques” in Chile, a 1,500 mile long trail that connects 17 national parks. Following their talk, I listened to Tony Hiss of NYU speak on employing railroads, highways, and other existing infrastructure for pollinators and wildlife corridors. I raised my hand and asked, “Has anyone thought about connecting greenways and trails in North America as wildlife corridors?”  Tony Hiss deferred to Dr. Wilson and he replied, “Yes, you!”

I stated back, “Well, thanks guys, you have just given me my new thesis” and we all laughed. I was enrolled at Harvard University’s Extension School and had just finished a masters certificate in natural resource management.  I had debated working on a second masters and suddenly, E.O. Wilson (one of my conservation heros), said I had something to say. I flew to Boston for a sustainability mixer and asked Dr. Mark Leighton, Associate Director and Senior Research Advisor of Sustainability, out for a cup of coffee.  I sheepishly told Dr. Leighton the story and explained that I was headed out on another field study trip to 20 national parks with 20 students in 28 days. I kept thinking that trails, specifically scenic and historic ones, could be employed as green infrastructure to help species move from national park to national park, but I needed someone to tell me that it was a valid idea.  Dr. Leighton replied, “Now, that’s an idea. You should join my St. John, Virgin Islands course in natural resource management this summer. Especially if you want to investigate national parks”.

Two Harvard professors had just told me, a mother and educator, that I had a valid idea.  I started sketching ideas in my Moleskin notebooks and took all the courses that Dr. Leighton suggested.  That summer I flew, took a taxi, a ferry, and a safari taxi to Virgin Islands National Park (VINP) with fourteen other students from the Extension School.  We met Rafe Boulon, the former Chief Director of Natural and Cultural Resources of the national park, and learned the ecology and management of the island from ridgetop to reef.  Standing on the edge of Hurricane Hole on the west side of the island we asked Rafe, “Do you ever have hurricanes? Are boats safe here? What about jobs? Do you have any of those?” St. John was literally American paradise and every single one of us wanted to stay there like the Rockefellers, despite the loud frogs and iguanas in the showers.

One month later, two category-5 hurricanes, Irma and Maria, hit the Caribbean and over 90% of the housing on St. John was damaged.  First responders brought 1,000 body bags with them because the aerial photos showed complete destruction. (They didn’t end up needing any of them).  My friend’s husband held their front door shut for eight hours while she hid in the bathtub with her three children. Another friend saw a mini-tornado pick up her fridge and sling it around her living room, shattering all she owned.  Hurricane shutters fell off of buildings, palm trees lost their tops, and roofs flew across mountains and totalled cars. Children hid under mattresses, mothers bailed out their living rooms from the flood waters with pots and pans, and fathers went house to house with chainsaws rescuing their neighbors from under debris. The boats in Hurricane Hole, the safest harbor on island, all broke loose and rammed the mangroves. St. John was used to hurricanes, but these were not ordinary hurricanes. Climate trauma had come to the Caribbean and this 45-square mile island with 3,000-6,000 people, depending on the season, didn’t know how to respond.

The fourteen Extension School students and I kept trying to find ways to be involved.  We sent money, volunteered, and visited. At some point, I found a job opening at Gifft Hill School, a private school on island that had opened its doors to public school students following the hurricanes. (The public schools were inoperable and students had nowhere to learn for over four months).  Gifft Hill School had a visionary board and generous donors who committed to giving any student on St. John a world class education tuition-free. I was mid-career and almost done with my second masters degree at Harvard Extension School, and their story moved me. When I asked Dr. Leighton and Rafe Boulon for their opinion they replied, “You always go where you can do the greatest good in the world and that is St. John”.

Now its May 27, 2019 and in three days I will walk across the stage in Harvard Yard with a Masters of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies from the Sustainability program. I have spent the past year living a three-minute walk away from Virgin Islands National Park and being the STEM Advancement Coordinator for Gifft Hill School.  We’ve raised 5 million dollars this year to complete our hurricane repairs and help provide scholarships to Caribbean students that wouldn’t have a preschool or high school on our island without them. The Clinton Foundation put solar panels on our school, which is a novelty to our students who just got windows and roofs back in some of their buildings and houses.  When it rains we still grab a mop and work together to make sure our classrooms don’t flood, and most teachers don’t give homework because not all of our students have electricity. We taught our preschool students how to grow their own food, and our elementary students how to build water filters out of everyday supplies and sand. Our middle school students became search and rescue trained and our high school students are doing scientific studies for the national park and advocating for policy changes with our governor.  I am living in America dealing with climate trauma and a recent university study showed that 47% of children in the U.S. Virgin Islands have PTSD.

Two other Extension School students have come to St. John to help us advance our green STEM job pathways for underrepresented students. Constance Spencer has a masters in architecture from Yale and she is working on her second masters in sustainability at Harvard Extension.  She comes regularly to help us with green energy solutions and sustainable planning. Brigitte Boeck-Chevalier is working on a shoreline mapping study that uses citizen science (and our students) to collect data about endangered sea turtles. We are three of the fourteen that went on a 9-day field trip to a little island in the middle of the Caribbean and fell in love with the people and landscape.  We are Harvard Extension School-- moms and daughters, husbands and sons, working adults that are mid-career, and we’ve got something to say.

E.O. Wilson was right in his talk at Duke University Biodiversity Days, great science comes from unexpected people from unexpected places. The lead ecologist of “The Wilderness Society”, Dr. Travis Belote, asked me to write two manuscripts with him on connecting national parks and using scenic and historic trails as wildlife corridors.  I reached out to him last summer and he thought my idea might be just what the American West needed. This month a UN Report confirmed that our human impact is affecting the lives of over 1 million species and I read the news with hope because I knew that I and others are working on solutions that might save them. Recently, my daughter looked at someone in the Harvard Science Center and said, “That’s my mom over there changing the world with her friends”.  

All that to say, living on the edge of a national park in the Caribbean has been a great place to write a thesis, and I am forever thankful that three years ago I walked through a Harvard gate that read, “Enter to grow in wisdom. Depart to serve better thy country and mankind”.

This is my Harvard story.


Melissa B. Wilson, M.S. is an active conservationist and environmentalist who happily lives in paradise (the U.S. Virgin Islands) working to create STEM career pathways and networks for Caribbean students. As a former evangelical, a current climate activist, gay ally, and descendant of the Bohemian Reformation (the first Protestant Reformation) she speaks about faith, life, ecology, and our current political climate on her blog www.ecotheologist.com. She graduates from Harvard University in May 2019. Her conservation research about wilderness, reaching Half-Earth, and STEM education can be found at www.melissawilson.net.

Photo by: Matt Paul Christiansen

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