Michael Slotten; Extension Educator; North Dakota State University

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The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. We’re calling this group of change-makers and rising stars “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”

Interviewee: Michael Slotten
Extension Educator,
North Dakota State University

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

Michael is an Extension Educator at North Dakota State University. As an NWF Fellow and Student at St. Edward’s University, Michael focused on educating and engaging young people and the Austin, TX community to conserve the endangered Golden Cheek Warbler.

David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as a Fellow help shape your career path?
Michael Slotten:
When I was a Campus Ecology Fellow, it really required me to engage not only the campus community in Austin, Texas, but also some of the surrounding communities. It really got me passionate about working with diverse groups - not just the college students, but also faculty and the community adjacent to the site that we had that we were focusing on with our project. I had to deal with a variety of stakeholders, but I think that it helped me figure out a language to communicate with. You had to figure out how to convey a message to those diverse audiences including biologists, students, and community members. There were so many components to the fellowship that got me thinking about different messages or triggered my thoughts to reach out to a certain group of people. That was really cool - expanding my reach.

DC: Would you say stakeholder engagement was the top thing that you learned in your professional development at NWF? Was that something that was new to you at that point?
I think it was fairly new to me, but more important was that I got to practice it. I learned the importance of relationship-building even when it’s on an impersonal level - when you’re trying to broadcast something, how to make it more personal. I would say that I knew about stakeholder engagement and had learned about it, but getting the actual experience was probably the biggest thing - to be comfortable with everybody and understanding that we’re all just humans and going for the same thing and then articulating that with a relational way of communicating.

DC: What are you up to these days? Where are you working, and why did you choose to work there?
I work for North Dakota State University, a state school in North Dakota. I’m an Extension Educator, so I work with 4-h and youth development in Ward County in North Dakota. There’s 110 land grant universities in the United States, and NDSU is one of them. I work with a lot of high school and middle school students, kind of extending the program of NDSU – our main campus in Fargo – throughout the county here. There’s a lot of STEM programming and in-school presentations on preparation for college, explaining different career paths. But also specific to my background, which is a heavy science and research base, I do a lot of work with outdoor education and things of that nature – sustainability being one of them.

DC: How did you learn of this position?
I had worked at NDSU in the past when I was doing my undergrad and was in the area doing some research. I had colleagues that encouraged me to reapply to work at the school for various positions. So, I’d say through networking and my experience with NDSU. I had always been interested in working for a university; I had worked part-time when I was going to grad school in Austin and it was something that I was passionate about was working with youth.

DC: It sounds like it was a good combination of those things. What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
MS: That’s a tough question for me. I would say my personal mission is tied to stewardship. It is something that I try to strive for as one of my values, and that goes in a lot of different directions – not just sustainability – but the way that I take care of the things that I’ve been blessed with. I think about future generations.

So, because I’m very passionate about the outdoors and because experiencing those things helped me understand my own identity, it’s something that I want to pass along to future generations to help them understand where they fit into the whole picture. So, for me, sustainability is about stewardship for sure.

DC: What motivated you to begin this path?
Early on in my high school years, I knew that I was passionate about nature and creation and very excited about those things, and I saw how that passion was something that seemed to be unique in some ways from other people’s passions. Those passions that had been placed in my heart led me down a science road, and I just went after it.

DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
There’s definitely an array of authors that, as conservationists, have inspired me. For example, Aldo Leopold and folks like him, even Theodore Roosevelt, folks that were very influential in this area. Also, my values are Christian-based, so biblical teachings on stewardship and being careful about the things that we’ve been giving play a big part. I would say a combination of a few authors and my value system in Christianity would be the main things that are inspirational to me.

DC: So then, focusing on more direct interactions, have you had any mentors or career coaches assist you in developing your career path?
Yeah, absolutely. A lot of mentors at NDSU where I did my undergrad, as well as at Saint Edward’s in Austin. There are a couple professors at both places. But one of the more influential folks is Charles Porter, a historian at Saint Edward’s that I worked for. He was a mentor to me while I was there for a couple years, and we’re still very close friends. We talk about international travel and the sustainability movement and things like that. We connect on a lot of different levels.

DC: How would you describe that relationship? What makes it work as a successful mentorship relationship?
I guess just willingness from both of us to be vulnerable. We’re both very honest with each other. He’s very giving of his time and is open to me asking a lot of questions since that’s just my nature; I want to try to understand things. Because of how receptive he is, I’m then apt to be more vulnerable. It’s a caring relationship - showing that he’s intentionally interested in what I’m asking, and we can really build off each other. I may think about a topic in a different way, and he’ll be intrigued by my thought process. Some of my research that I did was new to him, and he really encouraged me to pursue it.

DC: Do you plan to seek out opportunities to act as a mentor or mentee again?
Absolutely both for sure. As a guy that seeks to remain humble and be of service to people; I always try to seek out new mentors. It’s a challenge to find a mentor because we live in a fast-paced world, and a lot of people have so many things on their schedules. So, seeking out a mentor in this new community that I’m in is something that I’m still working on. But, I’m definitely passionate about being a mentor, so at almost 28-years old now, I can really pour my experiences into the lives of high school students, and even college students that are looking for their own paths. I do that in a variety of ways throughout faith-based communities as well as my position here, where I get to interact with students on a regular basis. I am very passionate about mentoring, and that’s probably the reason that I took this position was to be encouraging to young people.

DC: The NWF EcoLeaders program emphasizes acquiring project-based leadership and project management experience. Individuals across the country are working on various projects that align with their skills and interests, and we provide resources for best practices in project design and management and give them a platform to communicate and support each other. And then they can apply for and receive a certification of their leadership development and project management experience. If you were looking to hire someone or were mentoring them, and you came across someone with certification in leadership development, what would you ask that interviewee about their experiences?
I would ask them to extrapolate that and explain to me more what some of their leadership experiences were and what they gained from that opportunity. I think that everybody has different perspectives, so it’s really neat to hear folks and how they see things and how they see ways to make things better and improve them. I would encourage that interviewee to explain to me how that experience changed them and how they’re going to carry that growth with them in their personal mission.

DC: And how important would you say having that kind of project-based experience is when entering the workforce?
MS: It’s critical. For everything that I’ve been involved with, it’s definitely been something that has helped me rise above other candidates - working with a team to achieve a common vision. In science, and especially in academics, you have to work together, whether that’s researchers or other folks. Building those interpersonal interactions, maintaining a healthy environment, is critical to achieving your goals.

Also, project management is huge; to be a part of any organization nowadays, especially if you’re going to lead, you definitely need experience within projects in real life exposure to those things – both good and bad.

DC: Finally, what advice do you give to students who want to make a difference for sustainability?
That’s a great question, there are so many things. I really try to seek out what their hearts are telling them, and I think that sometimes we need to disconnect ourselves from the world around us to figure it out. I would encourage them to understand their identity as a part of a bigger picture and also to be a good steward. To do that, you have to get on board with other peoples’ visions as well as cast your own vision. So, what are some things that have been put on your heart to make a difference in? Whatever that is, I would support them and encourage them to chase after that in some way. Little steps can be fine, but as we mature, it’s good to think big and to act on those thoughts and passions that we’ve been given.

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Date Added: May 15, 2017
Date Last Modified: May 15, 2017