“… being an advocate for whatever they’re passionate about … there is a benefit in addition to the benefit to the environment directly of living in tune with nature and living in tune with the environment; but you also get a benefit of how you feel because then you know you’re doing good. You get that sense of joy and that sense of accomplishment that … at least you’re doing your part to try to help make things better, and I think that’s very rewarding for many, many people.”
Toni Reece: Thank you so much, Mary, for agreeing to be part of the Project, and before we begin, can you please introduce yourself?
Mary Poffenroth: Sure, my name is Mary Poffenroth, and I’m an instructor in De Anza College in Cupertino, California, and I teach environmental science.
Toni: So Mary, who do you think you inspire and how do you do that?
Mary: Well hopefully each and every day I work to inspire students, college students. A lot of the students that come into my doors in the Nature Center for Environmental Studies at De Anza College where I work are from all walks of life and many different ages. Since De Anza College is a community college, we have students that are just leaving high school, maybe 18 or 19 years old, and we have students that are returning to education maybe in their thirties, forties, even fifties.
So basically, every day my goal in every class that I do and I lecture in is try to inspire people to care about the environment. Not only to educate them about the facts and the figures and what they need to know in order to pass this general education class, but also to want to affect positive change in their own personal life, to want to make changes in their lifestyle choices in order to help the environment and become closer to the Natural World.
Toni: So how do you go about that? Is this through your teaching?
Mary: There’s a lot of different ways. Personally, I will do whatever I can in order to inspire people to affect positive changes and, you know, it can be something as simple as leading by example. Leading by example, I feel, is much more effective than preaching to someone about change.
So for example, a big problem in the United States is plastic water bottles. Many times college students will come in with plastic, disposable water bottles and, in fact, nine out of 10 plastic water bottles are not recycled. So that means only about 10% of our plastic water bottles are recycled; that means about 90% are going into our watersheds, our lakes, our streams, and our landfills. And a big way that every single person can impact that is by carrying a stainless steel or a BPA-free plastic reusable water bottle.
And so during class when I lecture, when everyone’s looking at me, I always have my stainless steel, reusable water bottle in hand and, from the time that we start the class until the end, I do see a progression of people less and less walking into class with those plastic water bottles and more and more walking in with a reusable canteen. And just that, you know, those simple steps that each one of us can take really creates, you know, positive change for the environment.
Also, encouraging people to be more active in their communities, finding out something that they’re passionate about and taking action to promote whatever they’re passionate about. Of course, I’m passionate about the environment, so I want them to promote the environment, but I tell them it’s whatever they’re most passionate about. It doesn’t need to be my passion, but as long as they are working in their communities and being an advocate for whatever they’re most interested in, is going to give them a more fulfilling life.
Toni: So Mary, let me ask you then, if you … you’re working with the students obviously, your focus with them is on the environment; however, the message here is to affect positive change and you want them to be active and to be an advocate. How then do you think that that helps them to explore possible potential in other areas in themselves?
Mary: I really think that, you know, having a holistic life that includes not just what your chosen career is but being active in your community, being active with other people more than just the social networking – actual social networking with other humans – is really, you know, something that is going to serve them well in networking when trying to find a career when they leave school.
Also it serves them well in terms of living a good life. And they’re going to achieve a lot of rewarding feeling from being an advocate for whatever they’re passionate about and, you know, there is a benefit in addition to the benefit to the environment directly of living in tune with nature and living in tune with the environment; but you also get a benefit of how you feel because then you know you’re doing good. You get that sense of joy and that sense of accomplishment that you know that, even though there’s a lot of environmental problems, there’s a lot of things going wrong in the world, at least you’re doing your part to try to help make things better, and I think that’s very rewarding for many, many people.
Toni: So Mary, what inspires you?
Mary: I think there’s a ton of things that personally inspire me. I think that I get really excited when a student will come up to me after the quarter, you know, after grades have already been submitted, of course, and let me know, you know, just how much they’ve enjoyed a class. I’ve had students come up to me and tell me that because of my class they are going to change their majors into environmental studies and environmental science and how, you know, they didn’t even know the kind of simple things they could do to help the environment. It was never told to them.
I’ve had adults in their thirties and forties come up to me and just so excited about all these things they could now do so they could feel like they were doing something for the environment, because before they were so helpless. They felt that there were all these big problems, pollution, species lost, and all these big problems that they didn’t feel they had any power to change.
Now they felt that empowerment to change, and so that’s really kind of inspirational to continue on with trying to inspire other people, so you know, they, you know, this group of people felt it and these are the ones that are just brave enough to come tell me. My hope is that there is a lot more in the audience that also feel the same way.
Toni: And so, I understand that that recognition and that awareness that comes back to you, that the learning that you put out is coming back as far as action as well and recognition towards you. What else inspires you in your personal journey as well as your professional journey? What is it that you find yourself going “Wow, you know, that’s pretty cool; that moves me?”
Mary: Definitely being out in nature, being … I personally am a conservation ecologist, and my focus is on animals, and I definitely don’t feel that I’m out in nature enough because, of course, I’m teaching a lot and inside the hallowed halls of academia.
But you know, I know that when I go outside and I’m in nature and I’m hiking or I’m kayaking or doing whatever I can, that connection that when you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to come across a wild animal, there’s this almost spiritual connection that I feel with animals, and this is part of why I do what I do. I do it for the students, and I do it for the animals, too, and I do it for nature. And when you are outside in the environment it is something, you know, that you have to feel to be out there.
And you know, personally for me, it’s when I kind of need a recharge or I need that inspiration to think about ways that I want to create new films to inspire people about the environment, you know, I just go out into nature. I live in California, and there’s so many amazing places to visit, and there’s really nothing more magical than being in the presence of wildlife, especially if you are lucky enough to come across and be in the presence of a top carnivore.
So something like a bobcat or a coyote or, you know, these kind of regal, royal, majestic creatures. There’s definitely just something that it triggers inside of you that is just, you know, unreplaceable here in kind of this world that we’ve created in our cities.
Toni: And so you running across one of those creatures does not equate to fear as far as you’re concerned?
Mary: No. I mean definitely, you know, a lot of people have the wrong idea about wildlife. We have created, you know … our top predators are carnivores as these monsters in films and TV shows and stories, but really for the most part, you know, you come across these animals and, as long as you’re not threatening them, they’re not going to threaten you. And even in terms like here in California, you know — mountain lions are a big concern — but the facts state that very, very, very few mountain lion attacks even happen. I believe that I read somewhere, I think it was like two fatal mountain lion attacks in the last 150 years in California, you know?
It’s very, very small, but mountain lion attacks are a lot sexier than car crashes, yet car crashes happen every single minute of the day here in the United States, and there’s way more fatalities from that and smoking and all of the other things that kill us. So we’ve gotten so detached from nature that it’s, you know, definitely an unhealthy relationship being detached from nature.
The animals that I’ve come across, you know, as long as you’re not threatening them and you just kind of let them go on their way and you don’t try to block them from their path, then you can have that experience and everyone walks away from it. I think … well for me, I think I walk away from it a better person. For them, they probably just ignore me and go on their way.
Toni: So Mary, you know, a lot of people that have been on the Get Inspired! Project as well as listening to the Project, there is a common theme of purpose and passion, and it’s not intentional; it just is a theme. You obviously have found your purpose and your passion. Was it always present, or was it something that showed up based on an event?
Mary: Well I can definitely say that early on, you know … I kind of was steered into studying biology out of high school, and I originally had thought that I wanted to work in a lab. I worked for NASA Ames in Mountain View for a little while, and it just wasn’t rewarding for me. I didn’t feel just, you know … I didn’t feel whole by working in a lab. And when I got into my graduate work is when I started to explore options in the field studies, being outdoors, being in nature, and this is where I really, you know, got excited and really passionate about what I was doing.
I’d always liked animals and nature, of course, but when I was studying out there, being outdoors in the middle of nowhere completely far away from my home and all of the comforts that I had known, it was really an experience that let me grow in many ways that I didn’t know was possible and the only way that you can really kind of experience in nature. And so that was really when I decided that, you know, working for nature, working for animals, working for the environment is what I wanted to do.
And then I guess kind of the second part of that was when I decided to kind of explore the options of doing science and nature films. Science and nature films for me became this creative outlet to take my passions of the environment and animals and nature and couple them in a way that could hopefully inspire and engage hundreds, thousands, maybe one day millions of people. And I get really excited about making shows and films now, too, because it gets me that kind of creative aspect that you sometimes don’t find in a lot of classical research and science. So I get that art, and I get that science kind of both put together.
Toni: And that helps to feed your passion and your purpose. That leads beautifully into the final question, which is, what do you need to keep exploring your own potential?
Mary: Definitely I think that, you know, for myself I love to learn. I’m a lifetime learner. I don’t ever want to stop learning. I think that as long as you keep learning, you keep growing. That’s going to keep you young forever. I think that education and learning is the fountain of youth whether your outside shell looks it or not, you know, that’s a different story.
But as long as you keep discovering your world, I think that’s really beneficial. And to kind of keep on my path, I think it’s also important to not only learn from books and from films and videos, but also to surround yourself with other people to be your mentors; and I don’t always think that mentors need to be more advanced than you.
Many times you can learn so much from people that are just starting out and, you know, surrounding yourself with community. I think a lot of times we’ve lost that sense of working together as a community of humans. We try too much to do everything by ourselves and so, working as a team, working with others, learning from other people’s successes and mistakes I think is really, really important and, you know, continuing to network and create that larger social community and just continuing to explore our world. I mean, there’s so much out there that, you know, I’ve yet to discover. I think that I just want to keep going and experiencing as much as I can while I’m here.
Toni: Well I hear a great correlation between how you explore your potential and also what inspires you, and one of those great correlations is the awareness … is the awareness that you are providing to the students about the environment but also the awareness that you’re gathering from the communities that you’re aligning with so that you continue to grow and to learn so that you can, you know, move that awareness forward to others; and I think that’s a pretty amazing cycle that you’ve created there.
I can’t thank you enough, Mary, for coming to the table and for this interview. I wish you the best in getting your message and the learning that you’re giving to the students on the environment. We all need to become a little more educated if not a lot more educated on that subject, so for the work that you’re doing and providing that information in this interview, we thank you so very much.
Mary: Thank you so much for having me.
For more information about Mary Poffenroth: www.MaryPoffenroth.com