The Challenges and Rewards of Environmental Education: Alumni Profile – Denali Barron ’09

Nick DiUlio for the Princeton Environmental Institute ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute
Denali Barron Denali Barron ’09 caving near Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo courtesy of Denali Barron

A passion for the environment leads Princeton students in many different directions after graduation. In Denali Barron’s case, it led her to become an outdoor environmental education professional in Thailand and Colorado.

“I love working in the outdoor and experiential education industry because it lies at the cross-section of personal development, global environmental issues, and outdoor adventure – all things I’m passionate about,” said Barron, an anthropology major who graduated with a certificate in environmental studies from the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI). “This field is so engaging because I’m constantly developing new projects, learning about new fields, and working with new people. I’ve also been very lucky to work at two small, community-oriented companies that are doing many different and exciting things.”

Denali Barron Barron climbing at Crazy Horse Buttress outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. This climbing area was developed by Princeton alumni Josh Morris ’00 who runs Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures. Photo courtesy of Denali Barron

Shortly after graduating in 2009, Barron was awarded a Princeton in Asia Fellowship, a program that provides service-oriented experiences for graduates in various countries. The fellowship took her to northern Thailand and Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures (CMRCA), where she spent the next two-and-a-half years doing what she calls “the best job ever.”

“At first I expected to stay only for a year, but it didn’t take long to realize that it was going to be at least a year before I caught up to the learning curve and could actually be effective in such a different place,” said Barron. “The longer I stayed, the more interesting and meaningful the work became.”

Barron’s official position at CMRCA was in program development, and her first two months were dedicated to cultural orientation. She lived with a host family, commuted 45 minutes into the city and took language classes for three hours every day.

Once in the swing of things, Barron found herself working 50 hours per week marketing, designing, and facilitating team building and experiential education programs for hundreds of climbers. These ranged from one-day rock climbing and caving adventures with Thai fifth graders, to week-long personal leadership and cultural exchange programs with American college students, to half-day team building extravaganzas with the regional directors of a global bank.

“I also got to be part of a terrific, 95-percent Thai team and worked constantly to make our little outdoor gear shop and bouldering wall into a community center for the climbers of Chiang Mai,” recalled Barron. “It was incredibly challenging and incredibly rewarding.”

Barron’s experience abroad not only challenged and rewarded her, but also strengthened her passion for environmental education, surrounded as she was by the complex environmental issues of a resource-rich developing nation.

Denali BarronDenali Barron holding a golden eagle and teaching visitors at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) about the important role such predators play in natural ecosystems. The injured eagle, found on Aspen mountain by hikers in 1982, was rehabilitated by the Center, but remains unable to fly. She is now a permanent resident at ACES and stars in many of their environmental education programs. Photo courtesy of Denali Barron

Now she’s back in the States working in Colorado as a naturalist at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) while applying to several graduate programs.

Barron, who grew up exploring the wilderness areas surrounding Aspen with her family, was first drawn to the Center when she worked there as a volunteer in the summer of 2007, assisting instructors with kids’ camps in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.

“During that experience, I was impressed with the quality of ACES’ site locations and with the impact of active environmental education on the students,” said Barron. “When I returned to Colorado in 2012, I was driven to reconnect with my home state and to continue working in experiential and environmental education. ACES was a great fit for me both personally and professionally.”

At ACES, Barron helps manage a 25-acre nature preserve in the middle of town, cares for resident birds of prey, leads hikes in the summer and snowshoe and ski tours in the winter that introduce people to some of the spectacular wild areas around Aspen, and facilitates environmental education programs with children.

In addition to applying to graduate programs in international education, environmental policy, intercultural communication, and related fields, Barron is exploring the possibility of developing a quality standard for international experiential education. This would be based on impact assessments and result in a rating or certification system for teen travel, “voluntourism”, and study abroad programs.

The idea came about while working in Thailand, where Barron said she was struck both by the volume of programs that exist to bring foreign youth into the region for adventure travel and service learning experiences, and also by the vast differences in the quality of these programs.

“Some did a great job of facilitating positive relationships and connections between student groups and host communities, but others had a negligible or even a negative impact. I’ve seen well-intentioned “service” projects that the host community has no interest or investment in; glaring ignorance of local customs in the way that student groups operate; exceedingly high turnover rates and poor communication between instructors and administrators; and schools and youth centers falsely portrayed as orphanages for a marketing advantage.  To address these issues, I’ve been thinking about developing a certification or training to vet a level of social, cultural, and ecological responsibility in the industry,” said Barron.

“My long-term goal is to develop something that could be applied around the world, but of course I would be starting small, perhaps regionally with northern Thailand.”

Throughout her travels, Barron has been exposed to a great deal of diversity—culturally, intellectually, and professionally.  She credits PEI for preparing her for the unique pastiche of individuals and environments she has encountered since graduation.

“At PEI, I had the experience of connecting with people who were approaching environmental issues from all different academic arenas, and I think that’s the certificate program’s greatest strength,” said Barron. “Discussing thesis work with faculty and fellow students from diverse fields such as electrical engineering, politics, ecology and evolutionary biology, and comparative literature didn’t directly influence what I was writing in my own thesis, but it did set me up to understand the world of environmental issues from a much broader perspective. That helps me now when I take engineers, politicians, biologists, and teachers on interpretive hikes in Aspen.”

For prospective or current Princeton undergraduates interested in studying environmental issues, Barron had two key pieces of advice.

“First, take advantage of what PEI has to offer. Allow it to expand your horizons, no matter what your academic focus may be.

“PEI is a great way to bring an environmental slant into your education and research without dramatically changing your direction of study. Environmental studies are about as cross disciplinary as a field can get, and the certificate is a great opportunity to engage in something that’s almost universally applicable. Not only delve deeply into your chosen degree, but also learn to think like a generalist. It’s something that’s undervalued in academics and, in my experience, extremely useful when you get out into the workplace.

“Second, I cannot overstate the value of living abroad, even for a short period of time. Take advantage of one or more of the amazing international programs Princeton has to offer and do work you want to do in a totally different place.  It will open doors you never imagined.”