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What do you want to do this summer?

20 Aug

“What do you want to do this summer?”

I was sitting in the office of Gaby Immerman who teaches horticulture at Smith, supervises summer Botanic Garden interns, is a board member for Grow Food Northampton (GFN) and is my Smith fairy godmother. She’s basically superman.

I’d first met Gaby through GFN, ( a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting food security through sustainable agriculture in the Northampton area. She’d worked with CEEDS staff to create an off-campus work-study internship position with Grow Food that began in September of last year; a job I was lucky enough to receive after seeing it posted on the school website.

My boss at GFN, Executive Director Lilly Lombard, is a passionate, well spoken, and hilarious force to be reckoned with. She’s petite but is one of those people that gives off the impression of being 6 feet tall. Gaby and Lilly interviewed me in Lilly’s home, which soon became home base for my bi-weekly GFN office hours. Lilly told me the job called for a Jack-of-all-trades, they wanted someone who was willing to try and do anything. To give you some perspective, I was just coming out of the summer working three jobs back home on Cape Cod. For months I had worked seven days a week as a chambermaid, groundskeeper, camp counselor, market manager, cashier and barista. These were good jobs, but having the opportunity to get paid to learn was baffling.

IMG_2043_cropLilly with one of her hens.

My job at GFN over the past 10 months has lived up to the diversity of tasks Lilly warned me of.  I have been paid to learn to use Grow Foods database, operate power tools, help write grants, plant, paint, design webpages, film – the list goes on. Grow Food has allowed me to pursue many of my own interests within the realm of the nonprofit, with the understanding that when someone cares and enjoys their work they are more likely to do it well. It has been an enriching experience. I explored my interest in social justice when I had the opportunity to work with Crimson and Clover farmers to discuss issues like how best to provide SNAP benefits to folks in a CSA format. My love for art was fed when I was able to design posters and  write a music video parody of Bohemian Rhapsody about water conservation (Growhemian Rhapsody).

I also learned about the more routine but important tasks of running a non-profit  – like mailings, meetings, budgets and lots of emails. Working at GFN taught me how to strike a balance between the practical and the idealistic, the importance of asking for help and what can be done when you take initiative. I found the effort put in is frequently what I got out and was always surrounded by impassioned folks to help me along the way. Basically, it has been my dream job.

Rocking out at grow Food office hours with Laura and LillyRocking out with Laura and Lilly at GFN office hours.

I am continually surprised by how I am treated at GFN. Lilly let me know early on she didn’t want to refer to me as an intern because the term felt diminutive, I was staff and an important part of the team. During office hours I am asked for an opinion on things I would normally feel unqualified to comment on, like writing an appeal letter for a mailing. Lilly has a way of making everyone feel that their ideas are valuable. I leave work feeling happy, kind of like I want to break out singing.

Returning to Gaby’s question, it was back in November that Lilly presented the idea of working for Grow Food during the summer. This was a daunting thought; I loved my job but I knew I needed to make money to pay for school, and I was planning on using my Praxis, a grant Smith offers to student doing unpaid internships, to go abroad and study Arabic next year. Lilly was determined though, and so a meeting was set up with Gaby to discuss my summer plans.

“What do you want to do this summer?”

When she asked me I had an answer prepared. I could work at Grow Food ten to fifteen hours a week and then spend the rest of my time working at either a restaurant or hotel or both. I told Gaby my plan and she stopped me.

“No, but what do you want to do this summer.”

I was dumb struck. I couldn’t remember ever being asked that question. Gaby clarified. “If money wasn’t an issue, what would you do?”

What would I do? It took me a minute. I love being outside. I love learning. I want to know more about plants and soils and agriculture. I had recently decided to be a geosciences major because of an amazing professor I’d had my first semester, Amy Rhodes. I began to ramble off a vague list of what I would do while Gaby looked at me and nodded.

That’s when she opened the flood gates and unleashed an hour-long discussion of all the opportunities I could try to pursue; farm internships, different geology/soil/water groups and organizations in the area, the botanic garden internship, even applying for SURF (Smith Summer Research Fellows) for a grant to work on soils with Professor Rhodes in Smith’s forest at the Ada and Archibald MacLeish Field Station. I was shocked not only that these opportunities were available but also that anyone would put so much energy into helping me. Gaby was with me every step of the way,  helping me sort out summer details and applications for different opportunities, eventually concocting the coolest most exciting trifecta of jobs I could imagine. (I am forcibly restraining myself from adding exclamation points to the end of every sentence I have typed thus far.)

Yes, a trifecta. I have spent the past two months living at Smith working three jobs, though I can’t stress enough how different this summer is than any I’ve known. Based around the center fact that soils and plants excite me (a truth I’m guessing started in high school from a local organic farmer combating the sandy Cape Cod soil with biochar) this summer, with the help of Gaby, Lilly and Amy, I get to explore my interest through three very different lenses: the forest, the botanic garden and agriculture.

Some weeks I am with Professor Amy Rhodes and awesome recent Smith graduate Jenna Zukswert at the MacLeish field station, ( working in the lab comparing the soils in hemlock and black birch forests. Some days we’re out in the forest, avoiding black bears and building our giant muscles with soil corers. Other days we are in the lab, sieving and running tests on our samples. The lab work intimidated me at first, but I’ve grown to really enjoy it.

SOIL PIT                                   Resting after excavating a soil pit at MacLeish.

One of my tasks in the lab this summer is running a grain size analysis of the forest soil, a process that involves using a milkshake machine to make the nastiest mud smoothies known to man. I collect soil from different depths in a giant soil pit I dug. Then I milkshake that soil with calgonated water and run it wet through a sieve to divide the sand and the mud. From there I dry and sieve the sand to measure the different grain sizes, and use a hydrometer to measure particle size in the mud, letting me see what percent of the sample is silt vs. clay. It’s been an amazing learning experience.

Other weeks I am with Gaby at the Smith Botanic Garden, ( working outside in one of the most beautiful places I know and learning about plants with other really incredible students from equally incredible mentors. Not only am I learning a huge amount about the garden, I’ve made friends, some of whom drop the Latin name of shrubs we walk by on our way to get ice cream like it’s no big deal.

And I still get to work at Grow Food Northampton as the Florence Organic Community Garden volunteer coordinator and staff member in the evenings and weekends. Grow Food has become a family to me and has made all the difference in opening doors to these opportunities.

HNGERWorking in the Hunger Relief plot.

My time in Northampton is almost over and the gratitude I feel is immense. If there were a lesson from this story it would probably be to never underestimate what might happen to you. A year ago I never would have expected this is where I’d end up, and none of this would have happened if Gaby hadn’t asked that very simple question. I now know what I want to do this summer, and I’m doing it.

-Alana McGillis. ’15

Alana is a transfer student majoring in Environmental Geosciences and a former CEEDS work-study intern with Grow Food Northampton. She is originally from Cape Cod and will be spending this coming semester in Mystic Seaport studying with the Williams-Mystic Maritime Program. The largest animal ever to get stuck in her hair was a Yorkshire terrier.