For Charles Coats, BA Environmental and Sustainability Studies ’13, spring break in Florida is all about sun, water and good times---and for six years, he’s led alternative break trips with these thoughts in mind. For Coats, though, these annual trips to Martin County focus on beach cleanup rather than beach volleyball and an extensive oyster recovery project rather than extensive oyster eating. With a degree in Environmental and Sustainability Studies, Coats now applies many of the skills he used during alternative break trips to his career in environmental education, and he couldn’t be happier.
Born and raised in Fairfax and Manassas, Coats knows the hectic pace of life in metro DC. Through his family, though, Coats was able to spend time at his grandparents’ farm near Pikes Peak in Colorado, visit his uncle near Montana’s Glacier National Park and his aunt who lives on a conservation easement in Minnesota. From an early age, Coats was comfortable outdoors and learned many important lessons in and from nature. So to Coats, studying environmental sustainability and helping other students learn about conservation made perfect sense.
He said, “I was at Mason at the perfect moment when a lot of things were happening. The Sustainability LLC and Patriot Green Fund were starting and they were looking for student leadership…a lot of my involvement was a result of being at the right place at the right time.”
While at Mason, Coats led experiential learning trips to sustainable farms in Virginia, to the Pine Ridge Native American Reservation in South Dakota, to the Grand Canyon and to Martin County in Florida. For a variety of reasons, Coats feels that the Florida program holds many benefits to alternative spring break participants.
Project partner Mike Yustin, environmental resources specialist with Martin County, has a variety of conservation projects underway at all times, and does not hesitate to engage Mason students to the fullest of their ability.
Coats said, “Mike Yustin is our partner from Martin County, and I have no doubt that there isn't any other program in Florida that is as involved as ours or has as broad a scope. Through his relationships and access, Mike can have us working on public or private lands. I can’t imagine a local partner as involved as Mike.”
Depending on the local community needs, students may be removing invasive species, placing rain gardens, conducting trail maintenance or using locally-sourced materials to create oyster reefs that will be positioned on the coastline to encourage the growth of more oysters. Students camp for the entire week.
Participants need not have any prior experience or any familiarity with conservation biology to make a valuable impact. Coats and other experienced trip members share skills and the team works together to complete different tasks. In 2012, Martin County recognized Mason’s volunteer support of its Ecosystem Restoration and Management Division and awarded the team a certificate of appreciation for the 2,000+ hours of volunteer service given up to that point.
Now as an NCC graduate, Coats works with two different organizations: NatureBridge and the Student Conservation Association. With both agencies, Coats mentors students who have typically had little or no experience outside their urban environments. Working in teams, participants conduct different conservation projects while simultaneously becoming more acclimated to camping, sleeping in tents and interacting more closely with the natural world.
Coats said, “The premise is to inspire the next generation to care about the environment. If that isn’t a direct correlation to my time at NCC, I don’t know what is.”
Coats continued, “I have a skill to help people to recognize something they care about and prioritize this in their lives and act on it… Sometimes it’s hard for people to accept that dream and pursue it.”
When thinking of lessons he has learned and his advice to incoming NCC students, Coats said, “If you’re living life bigger than you dreamed it, you’re doing something right.”