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On The Water: Alum Brings Education to Urban Youth

Written by Nicholas Fustor

Rani Jacobson '14 and Jessie Scott, urban connections program coordinator for the USDA Forest Service in Boston

It was a calm September morning as a large group of children stood on the edge of the Mystic River, eyeing the flowing water as if it were chocolate. As water splashed along the shore and a group of ducks swam by in a trail, six wooden canoes sat along the shore, ready to set sail on the waters.

For many of the children, this would be their first time setting foot on a boat. Their smiles were wide, their lifejackets buckled, and they looked ready to sail the Atlantic Ocean. Rani Jacobson ’14 brought the Canoemobile program to Boston, Massachusetts, in hopes of teaching young students about the environment by experiencing it firsthand. Canoemobile had great success in other cities around the country, and Jacobson hoped she’d get the same results in her hometown of Boston.

“It’s really important for kids to have this experience because there are studies saying there are mental health benefits to getting out in open spaces,” Jacobson says.

Some, however, were a bit apprehensive. As one boy’s group prepared to get on the boat, he cried in fear as teachers encouraged him to give the canoe a try.

A lifelong fascination with nature led Jacobson to the environmental science program at Ithaca College. But it wasn’t until a two-week trip to Ecuador with the college during her junior year that she realized she had found her calling.

During the trip, Jacobson and her group stayed with native peoples while seeing firsthand how Ecuadorian culture thrives off the environment. A particularly difficult hike in the solidified her love of the country.

After hiking through the cold, harsh environment of the highlands for a few days, Jacobson caught a cold while she and her group trudged on. A couple days later, they traveled through the overbearing humidity of the Amazon rainforest.

“It was pretty uncomfortable for the rest of our team, but I just remember thinking that I was actually strangely at home there,” Jacobson says.

During some parts of the trip, the group wasn’t allowed to take photos or document the trip in any way—but Jacobson said that allowed her to become immersed in the nation’s culture.

Her group was in Ecuador for women’s and children’s day, which was celebrated with a village-wide festival. Jacobson says she and the group were able to play soccer, exchange gifts, and participate in local rituals—which ultimately cemented her love for the area.

“You really had to take in those small moments where those people use the environment,” she says. “I realized this is why we need to protect the environment, and this is why what I want to do in life matters.”

After the trip, Jacobson knew she wanted to work with an organization committed to spreading environmental awareness. Shortly after graduating, she was hired as a community assistance fellow with the National Park Service (NPS)—one of just 10 in the country. As a fellow with the NPS, Jacobson works with programs like the U.S. Forest Service and Environmental Protection Agency to engage children with the environment.

Jacobson was inspired to bring Canoemobile to Boston by her colleague in the NPS leading the program in Philadelphia, where it had been a great success.

Now in her second year running the program in Boston, Jacobson said the reaction from students has been tremendous. After hosting 488 children last year, Jacobson says over 750 children are already signed up for this year. The program also grew in scope, as it expanded from a two-day event across the Mystic and Neponset Rivers, to those and the Charles River and Boston Harbor, across six days. Next year, she’s expecting over 1,000 children.

“Most of the students have been so positive. A teacher was telling us that this wouldn’t have been an economically feasible thing if schools hadn’t made it an opportunity,” she said.

As for the boy who was scared, it took a while, but he eventually mustered up the courage to get on the boat. When he and the group returned, his smile wouldn’t go away.Moments like these are what drive Jacobson to continue her work.

“I now know how important bringing community and people into science really is,” Jacobson says, “My experience in science won’t make sense to me unless I have community there.”



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