Mentoring Today’s Youth for a Better Tomorrow

“Be the person you needed when you were younger” – ASD Gifted Mentorship Program

by Kristi McLean, LEED AP BD+C, CESCL

A few months ago, the Anchorage School District (ASD) Gifted Mentorship Program contacted R&M. They were looking for a professional to mentor a tremendously motivated South High School junior, Elena Kamal, with a shared passion for making this world a better place through an environmental career (and a list of other talents too long to name). As an environmental professional that shares this passion, I volunteered my services for the year. After a brief introductory meeting with Elena, we kick-started an exciting ‘agenda’ for her professional development at R&M over the school year.

I’m always curious how others decide on their preferred career choices. Elena’s decision came through a keen observation of her environment.

“Throughout high school, the pressure to find a career path has been instilled in my mind. I knew I wanted to work in the field of science. However, with a myriad of choices it was hard to narrow down to just one. Growing up – in Massachusetts, Florida and Malaysia – I noticed how tactless we can be towards our environment, but how effective remediation can be,” said Elena. “Especially in Florida, with the population surpassing 20 million, apathy is a greater danger to nature because of the immense impact we have on the environment. When I moved to Alaska, I knew I wanted to do more than ‘reduce, reuse and recycle.’ I felt an obligation to pursue my interest and have a direct, positive impact on the environment. When I came across the Gifted Mentorship Program I was eager to apply. The admittance process was lengthy. I learned how to create my first resume, had several interviews and spent hours researching the more intricate attributes of environmental science.”

I was fortunate enough to find my calling at a young age and had support from my family and teachers to commit to the environmental career path. However, I didn’t quite understand then how many different forks in the path there would be or how diverse this profession truly is. Sometimes the sheer number of possible focus areas was overwhelming and I struggled at times whether or not it was better to be a specialist or generalist. Although, I truly love my environmental career niche, I can tell you with certainty I did not know (way back then) a career as a NEPA specialist was born from my enthusiasm with the natural environment and the intricate relationships that make our earth function.

In hindsight, I recognize what a great opportunity it would have been to have a mentor with professional experience and insight. My goal is to provide that opportunity for Elena. If my experience can help Elena find her career path, I’m happy to share that knowledge and help guide her through the decision-making process.

Elena and I have been meeting weekly since early September and each week has been very different in an effort to expose her to the wide variety of environmental vocations. Elena has expressed interest in water quality management and marine engineering, so I focused the first few weeks on storm water. R&M’s Environmental Group currently provides storm water management support for the Port of Alaska and Merrill Field Airport (MRI), so I thought a tour of these facilities would be informative, not to mention pretty darn cool. We even got to view site drainage at MRI from the control tower. This may have been a mistake, since I think she might switch ambitions to become an air traffic controller. I admit the view from the tower on a clear Alaskan day is both breathtaking and slightly more exciting than writing a storm water plan. We also visited the improved Ship Creek Small Boat Launch Facility on which R&M provided engineering and environmental support, including permitting and marine mammal observation.

Conducting professional interviews is also an important component of the mentorship program and Elena interviewed with two Group Managers at R&M since starting – Hans Arnett, Group Manager of Water Resources and Kim Nielsen, PE, Group Manager of Waterfront Engineering. The interview process provided introspective moments for both sides.

“Elena and I had the opportunity to talk at length about the water resources engineering field during our interview,” said Hans. “Answering her questions gave me a chance to think about what I really enjoy about working in this field and recall some of my favorite projects. The mentorship program is a very interesting idea…. I would have benefited from talking to someone about their career choices when I was that age”.

“This program seems like a great way to help students figure out whether they are a good fit for a certain career path before they enter college,” said Kim. “There’s a lot more to a person’s happiness and success than the academics. For example, just because you are good at and like mathematics, doesn’t necessarily mean you will be happy as an engineer.”

During her short time with R&M, Elena has already gained a tremendous amount of knowledge in the real-world applications of environmental science and is looking forward to continuing to learn.

“The insight I’ve received at R&M is invaluable and can relate to every part of my life. Now, I can’t pass a construction site without noticing minute details in their work,” said Elena (I may have talked about storm water and BMPs….a lot). “Being able to tell people I visited the Port of Alaska and the Merrill Field Air [Traffic] Control Tower is something I never thought I would experience in my life! I love the efficiency and clarity of each project and the work that goes into seeing each one through to the end. As the mentorship progresses, I cannot wait to see what’s in store. I have become more aware of my surroundings in these two months than my whole life. Even with the limited time I have had with R&M, I can easily say it has surpassed my expectations.”

I hope this exposure to this complex, yet exciting and dynamic career path will inspire Elena and provide real world context for making informed decisions about her educational and professional ambitions. So far, the mentorship has been a fantastic program to be a part of and I look forward to the opportunities and successes in store for Elena.

Kristi McLean, LEED AP BD+C, CESCL is R&M’s Group Manager of Environmental Services and has more than 11 years of consulting experience. Kristi is responsible for a wide variety of environmental tasks, including NEPA document preparation, agency and public coordination, regulatory permit acquisition, formal and informal consultations, preparation and implementation of marine mammal mitigation and monitoring plans, contamination assessment and remediation, and storm water management. Kristi holds a M.S. in Environmental Science and Regional Planning from Washington State University and a B.S. in Conservation Biology from the University of Nevada Reno. She has completed 40-Hour/Supervisor HAZWOPER training and is an ADEC QEP. Kristi is a member of the Cascadia Green Building Council and National Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP) and is currently President of the Alaska AEP.