Inspiring Leadership In Nature

By Nichole DeMario and Dunes Learning Center Staff

The picturesque and diverse landscape of the Indiana Dunes has inspired artists, scientists, educators and visitors for more than a century—providing opportunities for individuals to discover themselves in nature. None more so than Dunes Learning Center naturalist interns.

“That guy was a positivity magnet for the kids,” said one teacher in her program evaluation. “Young men need role models such as these to help them grow into confident young men.”

These emerging conservation and education leaders come from all walks of life locally, nationally and internationally to the Dunes, where they participate in a world-class, months-long residential learning program. During their tenure, they develop skills and inspire others through curriculum-based programs that help students develop a deep and indelible personal connection to the globally significant natural resources of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

June represents a turning point for these young leaders. While the previous year’s class gets ready to move on to new jobs, roles and responsibilities, incoming interns prepare for the adventure of a lifetime.

A degree in visual communications and experience as a park ranger and wild fire fighter brought Hammond resident, Enrique Pulido, to Dunes Learning Center’s naturalist intern program. Pulido, along with his fellow interns, was provided housing within the National Lakeshore along with unparalleled on-the-job training while making connections for their own future career success.

“The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Dunes Learning Center helped me grow into who I am today,” Pulido said. In his role as an environmental educator, he has inspired hundreds, if not thousands of students. “That guy was a positivity magnet for the kids,” said one teacher in her program evaluation. “Young men need role models such as these to help them grow into confident young men.”

Set among 15,000 acres in a “classroom without walls,” the tradition of learning in the Dunes was established more than 100 years by the “Father of Ecology in North America” Dr. Henry Chandler Cowles.

“Our programs provide a critical and beneficial connection to nature for learners of all ages—inspiring curiosity, scientific literacy and environmental stewardship. Each Naturalist Intern inspires thousands of students, and the experience is as transformative for the interns as it is for the students they serve,” Dunes Learning Center Director of Marketing and Development Sandi Weindling said.

Mere weeks ago, Veronica Rebollo-Diaz arrived at Dunes Learning Center from her home in Spain with a desire to apply her undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology in a national park setting. With two weeks of specialized training under her belt, she met her first group of summer campers, attending Dunes Learning Center’s Dunes Discovery Camp.

“I love it. Every moment here with the children. My creativity just bursts,” she exclaimed.

Likewise, incoming naturalist intern, Ali Sullivan says she is thrilled to introduce urban kids to the natural world. “Wildlife and nature can be a shocking new experience, but this kind of experience is important. I get to be a part of that,” Sullivan said.


Dunes Learning Center’s naturalist intern program is funded in part by a Transform Lake County grant for the Legacy Foundation. To learn more about Dunes Learning Center and its programs visit DunesLearningCenter.org.