Stories from the Field

NatureBridge Educator Spotlight: Carolyn Harper

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NatureBridge educator Carolyn Harper

Meet 28-year-old Carolyn Harper, an environmental science educator who currently teaches at our campus in Prince William Forest Park on the East Coast! Her desire to work in education arose when she began her degree in biology, conservation and ecology at Arizona State University.

“I started taking classes and learning new things that made my mind start exploding. I began to think, I wish everybody had this opportunity to see how beautiful their surroundings are, learn about it, and educate themselves so that they want to take care of it.”

Carolyn’s love for the outdoors began evolving from early childhood. Frequent, long road trips from her hometown in Phoenix, Arizona to Southern California weren’t a source of pain or boredom but rather of awe and wonder.

“For six hours, I was in a car, staring outside and looking at the landscape,” said Carolyn. “And I never got bored of looking at it. I just loved seeing the transitions of the landscape as we drove.”

Although road trips to SoCal were part of her family’s regular travel itinerary, at least twice a year, Carolyn’s family also went camping. One activity that Carolyn grew to appreciate on these trips was fishing, which was one of her father’s most cherished hobbies.

NatureBridge educator Carolyn Harper and her father
Carolyn and her father next to a lake in her early years.

“My dad would always take us fishing when we’d go camping,” she recounted. “I’d sit next to him and he’d just tell me to be there, with him, in the moment. I was just at a pier, on a lake, for five hours, just to enjoy its existence."

"I think in those moments, I built an empathy and appreciation for the natural world."
Carolyn Harper, NatureBridge educator

“I would just look at squirrels to see what they were eating, or smell a Ponderosa pine, or try to catch crayfish in the lake," Carolyn continued. "I cherish those moments now, and really appreciate that I had that experience.”

When asked about her favorite national park, it’s an understatement to say that Carolyn had a tough time answering. As a former Saguaro National Park Ranger, she was inclined to name Saguaro right off the bat...but her answer took some twists and turns.

Carolyn Harper in her Park Ranger uniform
Carolyn in her Park Ranger uniform, circa 2016.

“To start off, I think national parks are very surprising,” Carolyn started. “With some parks, you know what you’re going to see, but with other smaller parks, you’re not sure what to expect. But no matter which side you’re on, there is always a surprise factor.”

So her answer?

“So I’d have to say, the one that surprised me the most… oh man," Carolyn laughed. "There’s so many!"

After a short pause, she continued.

“I was most surprised by how much I liked Capitol Reef National Park. The geological wrinkle of the Earth there is very interesting.”

Capitol Reef National Park is known for its Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile long wrinkle or warp along the Earth’s crust. Thanks to erosion and rocks being pushed upwards, deep, narrow canyons and unique formations have been created along the Fold.

But of course, home is where the heart is.

“After working at Saguaro National Park for two years, I came to appreciate the desert much more. Saguaro National Park is the most lush desert out of the four deserts, and Arizona has all four deserts in one state. And they have a dancing skunk!”

In 2015, a wildlife camera at Saguaro captured a Western Spotted skunk in a rare threat-response: a shimmying handstand. See the infamous clip here.

When she isn’t bubbling with excitement over geological formations or dancing skunks, or exploring national parks with her students, Carolyn spends her time doing other things that she loves such as pottery and photography. She even has her own Etsy shop with ornaments she makes for others to enjoy.

ceramics by Carolyn Harper
An example of Caroyln's pottery. She has been into ceramics since age 12.

When it boils down to her deepest passions, however, Carolyn cited her passion for helping others be their best selves as the biggest motivator to becoming an educator.

“A week ago, I had a group. One girl was very interested and engaged. We were at a stream, testing the pH of the water. She pulled me aside and started to ask me questions about what path I took and what path she should take based on her love for science. I told her my background, my time working as a biological technician, and how I was able to find my path."

“At the end of her trip, she came up to me, hugged me and said, ‘I’m so happy I talked to you. You made me believe that I could be a scientist, and I want to do that.’ ”

Being a NatureBridge educator comes with its challenges, Carolyn admits, but her motivation is rooted in the purest form of altruism.

“Some days are bad and some days are good, but if I can get through to one kid and leave an impact, then I know I’m doing alright.”

NatureBridge Carolyn Harper with students on trail.
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