Student Spotlight: Michelle Danielson
by Michelle Danielson
Growing up in a multicultural home and traveling to different national parks on family vacations, I developed a love for culture and nature at a young age. I joined my high school’s marine magnet program, which provided me my first formative experience in an environmental program. This led me to pursue the undergraduate Natural Resource Conservation major at the University of Florida, and it was there that I was exposed to forestry. My professors and advisors at Florida shared their Peace Corps experiences and told me about the Master’s International Program. Upon hearing about these programs, I knew this was exactly what I wanted to pursue. Dean Current, my advisor, and his many years of experience in international sustainable development and work in Latin America, drew me to the U of M’s graduate program in Natural Resources Science and Management (NRSM). It also happened to be a partnering program with the Peace Corps.
I wanted to integrate conservation work and human dimensions with my interest in Latin America, since this was a part of my cultural background and my social environment in South Florida. I served as a Natural Resource Conservation Volunteer in the Peace Corps Mexico’s Environment Program. I lived in a small agricultural community in central Mexico, in the state of Tlaxcala, for two years. During the two years, I collaborated with the community and SEMARNAT (Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources) to lead various environmental education activities, hold natural resource workshops, set up a recycling program for the schools, and put on two environmental fairs focused on biodiversity and climate change topics, among other activities. Our big project focused on local medicinal plants: identifying the plants in the area, connecting local knowledge to environmental conservation topics, involving student groups, holding various workshops for skill-building, and in the end creating a small book of the information gathered.
The Peace Corps was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. I believe that learning truly happened when I was working closely with the local people. The social aspect of research and sustainable development came to life, as I had to integrate into a new culture, while also working with community members to identify potential projects. This experience exposed me to the various factors that may influence research and projects. I was able to develop strong friendships with community members during my stay at the site, which made it difficult to say goodbye.