A health checkup for the Connecticut River

Haley Rivers ’19 (left) and Leila Kouakou ’18 are spending their summer doing research for the Audubon Society’s Peterson Estuary Center in Old Lyme, Connecticut.

Updated: 12/7/17, 11 a.m.: This story from August highlights one internship possibility — and some of the ways the College community comes together to facilitate internships for every student.

By Kathleen Mellen 

What a way to spend a summer. Every morning for the past few weeks, Mount Holyoke College students Haley Rivers ’19 and Leila Kouakou ’18 have slathered on sunscreen, donned hats, water shoes and life vests, and headed to a cove on the Connecticut River, near where it empties into the Long Island Sound. 

First they retrieve their canoe from its hiding place under trees near the water’s edge. Then they pack their gear: a plant-identification guide, maps of locations to be studied, a hand-held GPS, data sheets, a potato rake for raking plants from the shallows, water bottles and whistles (for safety). Finally, they paddle to various locations on the river, most recently at Selden Cove, to spend about four hours a day identifying and cataloguing plants. 

It’s a rain-or-shine operation, replete with alternating cloudbursts and blazing sun and sometimes thigh-deep mud. And they can’t think of a place they’d rather be, the students say. 

Rivers and Kouakou have internships at the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, a center of the Connecticut Audubon Society, in Old Lyme, Connecticut. 

Environmental studies majors — Rivers, from West Springfield, Massachusetts, is concentrating in ecosystem science, and Kouakou, from Putney, Vermont, is concentrating in natural history — the students are replicating a 1997 study by Juliana Barrett of the University of Connecticut, which catalogued submerged aquatic vegetation, an important indicator of the health of the lower Connecticut River. They plan to compare their findings with the earlier study to assess the relative health of the ecosystem 20 years later. 

The estuary center, named for the renowned ornithologist, artist and environmentalist who lived in the town, will celebrate its first anniversary in September. 

“We’re a start-up — we don’t have a lab or other expensive resources — so our interns had to have start-up energy, vision and a gung-ho spirit,” said the center’s director, Eleanor Robinson. “I’m exceedingly happy with Leila and Haley, beyond expectations.” 

Robinson even hired a wetlands restoration expert, Jim Arrigoni, to mentor the students. Arrigoni said he’s impressed by his charges' academic excellence and work ethic. 

“I advise them about scientific aspects and ecological monitoring, but it’s been entirely up to them to get up to speed,” he said. “We gave them some resources but they had to climb the learning curve on their own.” 

Kouakou and Rivers climbed that curve quickly, arriving in Old Lyme on June 25 and getting into a routine after a week of learning how to collect and identify the aquatic plants they’d be seeing. 

“This internship has challenged me in so many ways — emotionally, physically, mentally,” Kouakou said. “It’s helping me figure out what I want to do in life.” 

In large part, the internship is offered thanks to the support of MHC alumna Alison McCall ’76, who is on the estuary center’s board of directors and was instrumental in arranging the opportunity. She also provided housing for the students at her lakeside cottage and introduced them to friends and fellow ecologists in the area. 

“I’m so grateful for everything Alison has done for us,” Kouakou said. “Someday, I want to be just like that — I want to help someone who’s in my position.” 

Being involved with students has fostered a renewed kinship with her alma mater, said McCall. “There’s nothing better for alums who want to feel connected to their school.” 

The College has supported them in other ways as well, say the students. They found the internship through Handshake, the College’s resume, job-search and recruiting system, offered through the Career Development Center

They are both participating through The Lynk, Mount Holyoke’s curriculum-to-career program, which helps students both to achieve their immediate goals and acquire the skills to navigate a lifetime of career opportunities and challenges. 

In addition to providing rigorous coursework, advising, alumnae mentoring and professional development, Mount Holyoke encourages students to experience learning on and off campus. The College makes significant grants to students to enable them to do what would be otherwise unpaid internships. 

Both Rivers and Kouakou received $3,000 in Lynk funding, Rivers through the Miller Worley Center Internship Fund and Kouakou through the Mary Jean Hale Internship Fund. 

“Without that funding, I wouldn’t be here,” Rivers said. “I’m getting this awesome experience, but I don’t need to worry about how I’m going to make ends meet. I’m really interested in wetlands ecosystems and I would like to do my own research in the future. This is getting me the kind of experience I need to be able to get a job like that.”

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