This summer’s addition of the Florida Keys and a new Rhode Island site aren’t the only things that are new about the Brown Environmental Leadership Lab (BELL). Director Jane Diener joined BELL this fall, fresh from earning her PhD in Forest Resources from the University of Georgia and bringing with her with a wealth of experience in environmental education. Here, she spoke with us about her background, what she loves most about BELL, and exciting additions she hopes to bring to the program in the future.
Briefly describe your professional background.
While in school for the last 9 years, I have had a variety of internships and jobs that allowed me to gain experience in environmental education across different populations. As an intern at my local water conservation office, I provided environmental education and water conservation tips to people of all ages and backgrounds. Around the same time, I was an ambassador for my forestry school, going into the community to judge grade school environmental competitions and do fun outreach with our school’s animals (turtles, snakes, oh my!). I also created programming for a couple of summer camps before suggesting a new job at the University of Georgia, where I was a student: a sustainability intern for University Housing. It would allow me to educate the 8,000 students living on my campus about how they could reduce their environmental impact. The department agreed and we started on a really exciting movement toward a number of new sustainability initiatives. That job lead me to a full-time role as a sustainability coordinator in the same department and eventually to my job here at Brown.
This isn’t your first role with BELL. How did you initially become involved with the program and what was your role?
While I was working at UGA as a sustainability intern, a mentor suggested I get some experience at another school to see if I enjoyed working with college students. That suggestion lead to a serendipitous sequence of events: I applied to work as a residential director at Brown for summer 2014 and was asked if I’d like to interview for a BELL instructor position instead. I got the job and soon after found myself in Rhode Island for the first time. That was an absolutely transformational experience. I returned in 2015 and 2016, while I was still working on my PhD. While I was wrapping up my dissertation, I saw that the program director position was available. In one of the craziest weeks of my life, I defended my dissertation then flew to Providence for my program director interview. The best news is that I passed the defense AND got the job. I feel very fortunate.
What did you enjoy most about working with BELL previously?
I still get chills when I think about my first exposure to BELL: Rhode Island. From a professional perspective, I most enjoyed learning from my co-workers and supervisor, Lauren Watka. Over the three summers I worked at BELL: Rhode Island, I was able to learn from some really talented co-instructors. Their confidence and passion was an inspiration to me. Personally, BELL was a huge breath of fresh air — literally. Everything about the program made it idyllic: the beauty of the site, the intelligent and joyful students, the influence of Brown University on the values of the program. It had a profound impact on me as a person, and it’s difficult to imagine my life without teaching at BELL.
What are you most looking forward to doing as program director?
Continuing the unmatched legacy of BELL. The existing programs are so intentional and well-designed, so I will keep a lot of what was done in the past. Our programs in Rhode Island, Alaska, and the Florida Keys will serve as great educational experiences for years to come. But like most environmental educators, I’m most excited about the next big thing! I’m hoping to expand the BELL program to new, exciting locations that will help students understand the impacts of global climate change on a variety of ecosystems and communities.
What are your responsibilities as the program director?
My main responsibility is to plan the Brown Environmental Leadership Lab. That includes hiring and training qualified staff members, connecting with guest speakers, compiling or updating curricula, and working with our contacts at each site to make reservations and plan program logistics. Fortunately, I don’t have to do any of this alone. I get to collaborate with other people in Brown’s School of Professional Studies, including APCs (hey, Monique and Karen!) and the other program directors.
Any changes to this year’s program?
This year, BELL: Rhode Island is going to be at a new site. We are moving the program into the forest! This means our students will get to hike through streams, discover different species of turtles, and study the beautiful lakes and dense forests of Whispering Pines in West Greenwich.We are also offering BELL: Florida Keys in the summer for the first time. The MarineLab in Key Largo, Florida is so excited to host our students for a week of marine ecology labs (not to mention snorkeling and kayaking).
Why are programs like BELL important?
BELL programs are so beneficial because they give students from all over the world an opportunity to use different ecosystems as living laboratories. Spending time getting to know a natural environment allows students to learn more skills in environmental protection and become more familiar with forms of advocacy. It’s one thing to learn about these environments in a classroom, but it’s a much more meaningful experience to live in a forest, snorkel above a beautiful coral reef, or hike on a glacier.
On a personal note, what has been your favorite discovery about Rhode Island so far?
My two favorite things about Rhode Island so far: food and nature! I’m loving RI’s commitment to donuts and I’ve also been trying as much local seafood as I can get my hands on. And I was pleasantly surprised by the ecological diversity of this beautiful state. We have rivers, forests, ocean, wetlands, everything! And since this is my first “real” winter, I also got to see a frozen river. If you’ve never seen that in real life before, it’s mind-boggling.
For more information on BELL Programs visit our website.