Environmental Gap Years
October 14, 2012

By Karen Ingraham

AMC Outdoors, October 2012
The summer after he graduated from high school, Jesse Bunnell was earning a paycheck at a local restaurant, working, he says, too hard for minimum wage.

“I was going nowhere,” he adds.

Attending college was a goal but it seemed impractical. Bunnell grew up in Colebrook—a small, remote town in northern New Hampshire—and says, “I had to work for everything I had.” Not working in order to attend college full-time wasn’t an option. Besides, Bunnell had no idea what he would study. Things began to change when a former teacher told him about a new gap-year internship opportunity with AMC. Bunnell applied and soon found himself about two hours from home, living in a dorm in Pinkham Notch and working in the Reservations Department.

“It was a great stepping stone for me,” Bunnell says of his experience. “It was really a lifesaver. It gave me a pause on life and solidified for me what I wanted to do.”

Getting a Jump-start
Bunnell lives in Coos County, New Hampshire’s least densely populated region, which accounts for 20 percent of the state’s land area but only 2.5 percent of its population. It is also the county with the highest unemployment rate and a significantly smaller proportion of college graduates (12 percent) when compared to the state as a whole (29 percent). The pulp and paper mill industry that once dominated the job market is largely defunct, fueling a mass exodus of people in their 20s and an overall decline in population.

“There are a significant [number] of youth up here who don’t have [a] future plan,” says Chris Thayer, AMC’s director of North Country programming and outreach. He helps spearhead AMC’s program, Building Sustainable Communities in Coos County (BSC3). In its second year, the initiative is designed to provide area high school students and recent graduates, like Bunnell, with opportunities to explore locally based careers in outdoor recreation—an industry that the Outdoor Industry Foundation says supports 53,000 jobs in the Granite State and generates nearly $4 billion annually in retail sales and services.

Thayer, a native of New Jersey, is a 25-year veteran of AMC who started as a seasonal summer employee after high school and during college and later relocated to New Hampshire to build a career with the organization. He says the goal of the BSC3 program is to “create something for the kids growing up here” and to ensure “opportunities exist for those not only from New Jersey but more locally from Colebrook, Lancaster, Berlin, and other North Country communities.”

To facilitate this, AMC partnered with the U.S. Forest Service and received funding from the charitable giving organization Fresh Sound Foundation to offer annually a gap-year internship and two summer internships in one of three tracks: mountain hospitality and sales, outdoor education, or trails and recreation management. Interns receive meals and lodging at their base of AMC activity—be it Joe Dodge Lodge, Highland Center, or Camp Dodge Trails Volunteer Center—and a competitive hourly wage working the frontlines alongside staff members, receiving hands-on experience in their fields of interest.

In the Driver’s Seat
Bunnell, AMC’s first gap-year intern, enrolled in the mountain hospitality and sales track when he began in September 2011. And “enroll” seems an appropriate word choice, as Bunnell likens his experience to a “mini college.”

Describing himself as “very sociable” with “a pull for public speaking,” Bunnell had never translated that into a possible profession.

The Reservations Department provided him with a foundation for basic computer skills and communication but it was working at the Highland Center’s front desk during a job rotation where things began to gel.

“Associating with guests was a huge switch for me,” he explains. “Reading people, their expressions…I fed off of it really well.… I was always undecided with what I wanted to do, [but] dealing with people clicks more than anything else ever has.”

So too did the opportunity for Bunnell to have an outlet to foster his love for the outdoors. Growing up alongside the Connecticut River, Bunnell fished and hunted with his family, and generally considered the wild river and lands his backyard. He didn’t realize that most people don’t have such access to undeveloped, wild areas, and that “they are willing to spend money doing something I’ve been doing all of my life.”

Thayer says this is oftentimes the case. Of the Coos County youth he encounters, many “know they have a love of the outdoors, but they discount what they know about the outdoors” and how that affinity can go hand-in-hand with a possible career. “Those skills directly correlate with what we are looking for,” he says.

For Bunnell, who re-discovered skiing on his days off from the internship, “the outdoors was always in my life, but it wasn’t as important as it [is since] I got here.”

The Road Home
Bunnell’s gap-year internship ended last May but he is still manning the front desk at the Highland Center, now as a seasonal employee. He hopes to stay with the organization until next spring or summer, when he would like to take classes part-time at Great Bay Community College, in Portsmouth, N.H., with a focus on business administration. His goal is to apply that knowledge to a possible career in the hospitality industry.

Bunnell is not unlike the growing number of young adults who choose a gap year after high school to travel, volunteer, or work. Anecdotal evidence from college admissions professionals suggests the break from schooling often provides students with opportunities to explore cultures and places previously foreign to them. This experiential learning translates to better-focused studies in college and a more diverse skill set to apply toward a degree program and eventual career.

“An opportunity of a lifetime” is how Bunnell sums up his internship, and he quickly adds, “and I’m not bashful about saying I don’t like something.… It’s tough when you come from a small town…there is not a whole lot you know until you travel a bit. Doing an internship gets you out into [a] world you never knew existed.”

Thayer hopes to provide that same opportunity to more and more North Country residents over the next few years and to bring more recreation and education partners into the program to expand the internship offerings. “The goal is to build it out,” he explains, “to create in the pipeline a number of internships in Coos County. Partnerships are key. The idea here is that it’s not an AMC initiative, but a spark that creates something bigger and better for the youth in the region.”

To that end, AMC is currently collaborating with White Mountains Community College, in Berlin, N.H., to create a two-year certificate degree in outdoor recreation management involving AMC staff instructors as well as college-level internships. The program may launch as soon as fall 2013, but must meet strict guidelines and an approval process dictated by the Community College System of New Hampshire.



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