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Reflections on being New To Nature

July 4, 2024

New to Nature trainee Mariana Fidalgo reflects on their time as Project Assistant for the Green Schools Revolution: Wilding Schools project at SOS-UK and how they were inspired to pursue a career in the environmental sector.

I became familiar with SOS-UK and the New to Nature role at the same time. I was just out of university after graduating from BSc Environmental Management and despite having a fair amount of experience within the sector through volunteering and short placements, I definitely wanted to gain more experiences, develop my skills and expand my career opportunities. My university supervisor at the time actually made me aware of the role and introduced me to SOS-UK, being involved in the environmental education area herself. I had applied for a few roles but this one really stuck out to me not only because SOS-UK aligned with my views and values but because the placement was so development focused and really highlighted the support trainees would get, especially coming from an entry level and having other background barriers.  

Mariana at a New to Nature celebration event

SOS-UK in general is a sustainability organisation with a focus on student-led initiatives, something I was immediately drawn to having just finished my academic studies and focusing my dissertation on the importance of centring young people and students at the heart of environmental education. The specific project, Wilding Schools, had a biodiversity focus – something that I certainly wasn’t very familiar or confident in but very keen to expand my knowledge within the area. The Wilding Schools Project Assistant role in brief is a facilitative and supportive role for students involved in the project, equipping them as well as their supporting teachers with the confidence and resources they need to create a wilding plan and begin making changes to their school grounds with an aim of increasing biodiversity. The wilding plan for the school grounds has to keep in mind the local wildlife as well as national 30 by 30 targets – the aim is that schools will have ‘wilded’ at least 30% of their school grounds by the end of the project. The specifics of the role will be further explored below.  

Expectations for the placement role were many – to gain professional experience in the sector, to increase my confidence overall but especially in working with children/young people and stakeholders, learning new things in the sector which I wasn’t familiar with before, taking more risks and doing things out of my comfort zone with the expansion of skills in mind. I also hoped to make connections in the industry and really begin to understand what position I want to take within the sector.  

One aspect I really appreciated about working on the Wilding Schools project was that we had a team. Despite my role having specific responsibilities, the fact that I had a team to work alongside made those responsibilities feel less heavy, especially as this was a pilot project and also my first full time professional experience. As Wilding Schools and Green Schools Revolution in general was a pilot project, a lot of the responsibilities my role entailed were creating resources from scratch and doing the administrative tasks to get the project up and running. Such tasks included creating and delivering key sessions such as the introduction assembly, onboarding session and wilding plan session, doing lots of research on resources the schools could use such as types native plants, ‘how to’ guides, lesson resources focusing on wildlife etc. Despite many schools already being listed as potentials due to their criteria such as their ranking on the Index of Multiple Deprivation, I also had the responsibility of selecting the priority schools, doing the initial outreach and introduction calls as well as researching local ecological support for each school such as setting up initial meetings with Wildlife Trusts and creating relationships with these partners who will be working with the schools for the duration of the project and hopefully in the future as well. Now, as the project progresses to the next phase in Spring time of implementing some of their plans, this has also meant my role has progressed – now that our relationships with the school have been established and we have terminated our initial delivery with them, my role consists of supporting the students and teachers by having occasional check ins to see the progress of their wilding plans and researching and ordering any items/services they need to implement their wilding plans.  

"Mariana was an excellent communicator and organiser, and was a genuine pleasure to work with. She efficiently and effectively liaised with myself and the contact at Tongwynlais school to deliver the Wilding plan workshops, providing clear outlines for the roles and responsibilities of all parties involved. This excellent communication extended beyond myself and other staff, but also directly to the students. Mariana worked well with the children, and made sure everyone understood the workshop activities. She communicated not only clearly, but in a way that kept the students engaged throughout the workshop. Her bubbly and lively personality shone through in her work, and it was a pleasure to work with her on this project. I sincerely hope that we can work together in a similar capacity in the future". Alex Griffiths, Wilder Engagement Officer for the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales.

Mariana delivering a Wilding Plan workshop with pupils at Tongwynlais Primary School.

Being a pilot project, there were many learning curves throughout this first year. Although thankfully, there was never anything that felt extremely challenging, there were definitely times where challenges arose. A lot of the times we had provisional deadlines for certain phases of the project but due to schools’ busy schedules and at times, inconsistent responses, this would force us to have to alter the timelines a few times. However, as this was the pilot year, these sorts of challenges were expected and thankfully, being an creative and adaptable person, most of the times this would just require me having to tweak the original approach to suit the schools’ capacity and capabilities. This often looked like being flexible with delivery options (in-person, online, split sessions etc), merging sessions together, sending additional supportive resources and of course, asking for support and advice from colleagues as well. We also adapted sessions according to individual student needs or the schools’ requirements, such as ensuring resources were appropriately adapted for SEN settings, as well as tailoring materials for different age groups. For example, I learned more about how to use the correct colours in presentations to improve accessibility for students with visual impairments.  

During my placement at SOS-UK and through the New to Nature programme, I have gained a wealth of knowledge, skills and insights. Hearing and learning from professionals in the sector such as those from LEEF, IEMA and Natural England in our ‘Broadening Knowledge’ sessions has been an example of this. These experiences have broadened my understanding of the environmental sector and provided me with a deeper insight into areas I wasn’t so familiar with such as green solutions and mechanisms for responding to the climate emergency, both on an individual and systemic level. Another one of the key aspects of my learning through New to Nature’s well-thought- out supportive sessions and talks has been understanding how to manage the emotional demands of working within this sector. For example, the 'stress bucket' technique, which focuses on mental health and well-being, has equipped me with essential skills to support my mental health.  

The opportunity to connect and network with peers in similar roles across different areas of the sector has been another highlight. This has allowed me to build a diverse network and learn from the experiences of others. Having a mentor has also been crucial for my development, providing regular reflection, goal-setting support and valuable advice.

Access to the Breaking Barriers and Training Fund has also been greatly instrumental in my professional growth. It has enabled me to take specific courses such as conservation and biodiversity, as well as address physical barriers like driving. Achieving my Carbon Literacy certification is one such example of New to Nature’s focus on support.

At SOS-UK, working in a collaborative team environment has been particularly inspiring. The exchange of knowledge and skills within the team has been motivating and has provided a strong support system. I have had the opportunity to contribute to a variety of projects within the organisation including developing educational materials for the Teach the Teacher programme, creating resources for the Hedgehog Friendly Campus project and judging the Green Impact National Awards.  

One of my significant accomplishments was co-leading the communications for our Student Sustainability Summit. This involved creating engaging content, managing social media in real-time, and ensuring the event's success. This experience not only honed my communication and social media management skills but also boosted my confidence in handling large-scale events. Additionally, participating in and representing SOS-UK at the Youth in Nature Summit was a highlight, allowing me to engage with young people passionate about environmental issues.

Having this placement experience has significantly contributed to both my professional and personal growth. I’m extremely thankful for the past year and the privilege of having the opportunity to work on such a supportive placement. This opportunity has provided immense support during my first full-time professional experience within the sustainability sector. Over the past year, I have learned a great deal about myself as a person and as a professional.

I discovered which forms of communication are most effective for me and I have learned the importance of setting boundaries for my well-being and mental health. Time management and organisation have become crucial skills that I’ve honed throughout the placement. Additionally, I’ve had the ability to harness my skills and interests, tapping into my creative side in the role through various projects.

The experience has also helped me develop greater independence while enjoying the dynamics of working in a team environment. I have truly valued the opportunities to visit schools, attend events and participate in regional co-working days and 'walking 1:1s' to combat the feeling of isolation of working alone at times. The opportunity has also really cemented my love for working with children and contributing to the development of their relationship with nature and their wider educational and developmental journey.

One of the most significant personal insights has been understanding how much I enjoy hands-on, community-focused work. This is exemplified by me being offered a role as a Blue Mentor in Bristol as part of the Blue Influencers Scheme with SOS-UK. The role as a Blue Mentor was a direct result of this placement and represents an exciting next step in my career. I am looking forward to applying the skills and knowledge I have gained in my future career.  

"Mariana has been a fabulous addition to the team at SOS-UK. She has a brilliant ability to be flexible in her approach to work and can complete several different projects at a time. Mariana gets fabulous engagement from partners like the Wildlife Trust and the schools all love her. We’re so proud of everything Mariana has achieved in her time with us as part of the New to Nature programme and wish her the best of luck with her next steps!” Jo Wilkinson, Senior Project Manager for Biodiversity at SOS-UK and Mariana’s line manager.

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity provided by SOS-UK and New to Nature. Special thanks to Sammy and Billy, the New to Nature dynamic duo! They were always so fun and supportive and such a warm presence to make sure the New to Nature trainees always felt comfortable and not feel total imposter syndrome! I would also like to thank Jo, my line manager, for pushing me to make the most of this opportunity and always being super supportive and helpful and my amazing team—Celine, Katie, Nico and Emily—for making the Wilding Schools project such a rewarding experience. Lastly, thanks to Hywel, my New to Nature coach from Groundwork for his consistent insightful advice and encouragement.

I feel like the New to Nature Showcase event was a perfect wrap up – it showed us how diverse all of the traineeships were but how we were all collectively there for the same reason – our love for nature and wanting to make a living around it. I wholeheartedly recommend programmes like New to Nature to anyone seeking to enter the environmental sector and make a meaningful impact.

New to Nature is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the celebrations to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and the King’s Coronation. The programme is delivered through a partnership of Groundwork, The Prince’s Trust, Disability Rights UK, Mission Diverse and the Youth Environmental Service.

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