Last week I found myself driving through central North Carolina following a meeting, and decided to pay a quick visit to my alma mater at Duke University. What I didn’t know at the time was that it was just a couple days prior to graduation, and the campus was teeming with excited parents and students. Once I considered the timing, I quickly realized that it was almost exactly 22 years ago that I managed to complete my own struggles through graduate school, and began to stumble forward into what has become a very satisfying career.

After picking through the traffic to find a parking space, I made my way to the Bryan Student Center… instinctively hoping to get a vicarious taste of the excitement. Students were attending seminars, and showing their parents around the campus, and collecting their caps and gowns at the bookstore. But what struck me most was an unexpected sign of the hope represented by these young lives.

Outside the Bryan Center someone had placed a giant blackboard with perhaps a hundred lines drawn on it for students to voluntarily complete. Each line began with the words, “Before I die, I want to…”. I couldn’t help but be drawn to the responses, which ran the gamut of emotions felt by any 22 year old about to launch into the world – anticipation, trepidation, hope, and ambition. Several students had written “…fall in love”, or “travel the world”. A couple had written “get a job”, or simply “be happy and fulfilled”. But there was one that probably touched me most.

“Before I die, I want to save an endangered species.”BeforeIDie_2_highlighted

As it happens, we live (whether in the United States or Canada) in a country where we can each pursue our dreams, no matter how grand or simple. These young people, armed with their new education, are as well-positioned as anyone to make their dreams come true.

I wasn’t nearly so articulate, or self-directed, when I graduated. But I can look back now, and say that there’s a salamander in West Virginia that I had some small part in protecting. The General Davis salamander was known from a single cave in West Virginia, and was subject to becoming bass bait until the cave was protected by The Nature Conservancy. I was State Director of TNC at the time. Very few folks know of it, but that’s not what matters… at least to me.

Our Program Participants at SFI have their own private victories as well. Forest managers regularly protect species and ecosystems, not to mention jobs and communities, through the work that they do every day. Like nearly everyone in the business of conservation or natural resource management, they are motivated for private reasons, and seeking fulfillment of some vision that might have been scrawled on a blackboard sometime back in their own personal history.

I left the campus of Duke University last week with more than a little hope, knowing that there are still opportunities to do the right thing, and there are young people poised to get it done.


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