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Simple question leads to big internship

By Alexandra Wertz '12
January 30, 2011

Bethany Olson '11 (left) poses with Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, in front of pallets of oyster shells that the group put into the Gulf of Mexico in January to help replenish oyster reefs damaged by the BP oil spill. A Washington Post story detailed the group's efforts.

Bethany Olson ‘11 is proof that internships don’t always begin with a polished resume or three-piece suit. Sometimes they start with a simple question.

On a church mission trip to Alabama last summer, Olson visited a small island that had been greatly impacted by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While there, she stumbled upon a small film crew interviewing Casi Callaway, executive director of Mobile Baykeeper. Curious, Olson approached the crew and soon learned that Mobile Baykeeper is a nonprofit organization committed to protecting Alabama’s Mobile Bay watershed. Olson, an environmental studies and French major who hopes to one day work in environmental education or agricultural sustainability, took the opportunity to ask Callaway if Mobile Baykeeper might have use for an intern this January.

With Callaway’s endorsement and a Joy Korda Schaefer Scholarship from the St. Olaf Center for Experiential Learning, Olson set off for a month of work in Alabama.

“I think that my experience at Mobile Baykeeper has helped me understand the role of environmental nonprofit organizations more than anything else, as well as the importance of networking and collaboration,” Olson says.

The nonprofit world, she realized, is about knowing people. “This has been helpful for me because I do hope to work in the nonprofit sector, which means that I will need to make a good effort to get to know the relevant organizations, contacts, and stakeholders within the community I work,” she says.

Working to empower people, protect an area

Olson’s internship involved a variety of different roles, including researching environmental legislation, tabling at promotional events, patrolling beaches for oil and tar remnants, and, most recently, launching a program that plans to build 100 miles of oyster reef and maintain 1,000 acres of marsh and sea grasses over the next five years.
 

Bethany Olson '11 (center, in orange vest) works with other volunteers to lay bags of oyster shells into the Gulf of Mexico in an attempt to build 100 miles of oyster reef.

“It makes all the difference in the world to deeply care about the work you are doing and know that you are working toward a greater goal,” Olson says. “I used to work retail a few years back, and there’s a limit to the depth of feelings you can have for folding shirts. Working to empower people and protect an area as beautiful as Mobile Bay, though, is something that motivates me on a very profound level, and probably will for years to come.”

In addition to gaining valuable career-related experience, Olson is also getting a cultural experience. Escaping the sub-zero temperatures in Minnesota, Olson has developed a love for the South and its tight-knit communities. “The benefit of a small town feel is that the community is willing to engage in preserving and protecting the heritage and health of the area, especially if they know one or more people advocating the cause, which for Mobile Baykeeper is certainly the case,” she says. “It is really cool to see environmental work — and nonprofit work in general — be a community effort.”

Despite the rich agricultural and environmental opportunities her home state of Minnesota has to offer her, Olson may have found a new home. “Fortunately, each day has been full of incredible and educational experiences, and I am appreciative for every minute that I have been here," she says. "Somehow I feel like I might end up back here sometime.”

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.