A Modest Proposal

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If we intend to turn out not just scholars, but whole people who create

and use knowledge to make a difference, how would we do it? Is

there a teachable moment in the lives of students who want careers in

conservation biology? I believe that there is, and that it most often occurs

between the undergraduate experience and graduate school. At

this point in their development, most young people have a fair grasp

of one or more disciplines but only a vague idea of what they want to

do with their lives. Many have taken a lien on future income to pay

for their undergraduate degree. At that point, however, their choices

generally narrow down to staying in school supported by a combination

of scholarships and loans or employment. But a small minority

goes on to the Peace Corps and other service organizations, often with

illuminating results. Most describe such experiences as life changing,

because of exposure to different cultures, ideas, and particular persons.

The impact of such exposure has little to do with formal learning

and everything to do with coming to see the world through different

eyes. Whether they go on to graduate school or employment,

most have been profoundly deepened by the experience and understand

themselves and the world in ways not otherwise possible.

This suggests a possible alternative to the standard academic career

track. The time between undergraduate education and graduate

school is a great and mostly untapped time to influence young people

before they commit to one career or another. What do they need?

More than further exposure to the professoriate, they need exposure

to people doing great things with courage, stamina, and creativity.

They need mentors and role models, and these are most often found

among those actually changing the world. Instead of career planning,

they need a deeper and more vivid concept of what it means to live a

life of service and commitment in what surely will be the most fateful

period in human history. They need a compass to chart a life course

that combines intellect, heart, judgment, and professional skills.

There are a few precedents for this kind of experience, including the

Watson Fellowship program and the Ashoka Network of social entrepreneurs

assembled by Bill Drayton (Bornstein 1998).

I propose that such models be used to develop programs that

broker a mentoring arrangement between undergraduates wanting

careers in conservation and a group of extraordinary practitioners in

the field. Such a program would entail the development of a selection

process to identify applicants; the selection of a group of conservation

practitioners; the creation of an application process that would match

the two; and administration and assessment.