Syesha Walley is no fan of spiders. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. But, as the first Peterson Foundation education intern at the DuPont Environmental Education Center, there’s much that Walley has discovered that she does likes about nature.
“I enjoy catching fish in the marsh. I can identify sunfish, minnows, mummichogs, and catfish,” says Walley, a 16-year-old New Castle resident. “I also feed the snakes and turtles that we use for education programs. If anyone had told me a year ago I’d be feeding snakes, I wouldn’t have believed them.”
Walley, who is a rising junior at Howard High School of Technology, said she didn’t really like nature until she had a chance to visit the DuPont Environmental Education Center (DEEC) several times last summer.
Her visits were part of the Delaware Futures program, a collaboration between Clear into the Future, a DuPont community-based conservation program; Delaware Nature Society; and other partners. Each summer, Delaware Futures brings two dozen underserved teens to the Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge, adjacent to DEEC, for a hands-on citizen science study of a marsh ecosystem, participation in a marsh restoration project, and exploration of potential future career paths.
Walley stood out for her enthusiasm and willingness to take on new challenges, says John Harrod, manager of DEEC. Then, early this year, June Peterson, the widow of Gov. Russell W. Peterson, decided that the family’s Peterson Foundation would fund a summer education internship at DEEC.
It wasn’t hard for the selection committee to decide to select Walley for this 30-hour-a-week, paid internship. Center staffers say that Walley has far exceeded expectations.
“Syesha does an amazing job with the variety of ages and groups that visit DEEC,” says Lesley Bensinger, education coordinator at DEEC. “She is working with our public visitors, summer camps, group programs, and seasonal programs. Within just a few weeks she was asking to teach summer programs. I am blown away by her outgoing personality and her confidence.”
That confidence was put to the test one recent busy morning. Walley was prepared to teach a preschool program but because of a scheduling conflict was asked if she could instead teach another program, geared to 10- to 13-year-olds.
“I had to quickly get myself ready to teach ‘Fantastic Fish’ but I did okay,” says Walley. “I’ve learned a lot about teaching. Early on, I learned that you need to be able to improvise. The lesson plan is just a guide. When visitors start asking you other things, you’ve got to be ready to answer their questions.”
Walley has discovered lots of new things this summer. She went canoeing for the first time. She learned the difference between a painted turtle and a red-bellied turtle. She has developed a new appreciation for the environment and wants other people to respect the natural world around them, too. And, perhaps most importantly, she has decided that she loves teaching and would like to make it her life’s work.
“By being here at DEEC, I know I want to become a teacher,” says Walley. “I really like the education part of this internship and would like to continue to help people learn new things.”
“When I did an offsite program at Hilltop [Community Center], I had kids saying they weren’t going to touch live animals from the marsh,” recalls Walley. “But I told them I used to be the same way. I said, ‘If I can touch it, you can, too.’”
“It worked. They ended up really liking the marsh creatures.”