Rebuilding the North Dakota student chapter

By Dana Kobilinsky

Ellis-Felege trains her students about how to age, sex and band ducks at a public banding night event at Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge. Each September, the chapter helps with this event by dealing with crowd control, handling the ducks and showing the public information they collect. Image courtesy of Susan Ellis-Felege.

Nominations for the 2018 Student Chapter Advisor of the Year Award will be accepted through May 1. Visit the Conservation Education Award and Wildlife Education Award webpages by clicking the links above, or visit http://wildlife.org/engage/awards/ to learn more about all TWS awards.

Susan Ellis-Felege had just returned from a remote research camp in northern Manitoba and was wading through her emails when the subject of one of them caught her eye. It read “Student Chapter Advisor of the Year.”

Ellis-Felege soon found out that her students nominated her for the TWS award and she had won it. “The students really went to bat for acknowledging me,” she said. “It was pretty fantastic.”

Ellis-Felege began her position as an associate professor of wildlife ecology at the University of North Dakota almost seven years ago. As part of her faculty position, she was asked to be the advisor of the TWS student chapter, and she happily agreed.

But when she began her advisor position, she realized the chapter needed some revamping. While it had been around for more than 20 years, the students weren’t very active. “The program needed extra life,” she said. She hoped to give students more hands-on experience and networking opportunities.

One of her first missions was to get the student chapter involved in the very active North Dakota state chapter of The Wildlife Society. Then, the students raised enough money so that Ellis-Felege could take them to state chapter conferences and even national conferences. TWS conferences were some of the first conferences she participated in and found helpful as a graduate student, Ellis-Felege said, and she wanted these students to have a similar experience.

“They went from zero to 60 in terms of what they did,” she said. “The bank account had $300 when I first got here. Now, it’s thousands of dollars. They’ve done the fundraising to bring in the money.”

The chapter also raised money for the students to have speakers every spring, and they go to different refuges to help run wildlife surveys. One way to raise that money is through a game supper, which the chapter is proud of, especially since parents and alumni make the trip to attend.

Ellis-Felege never saw herself going back into academics when she was beginning her career. She always thought she would work with wildlife at a state or federal level. But she learned that the biggest impact she can have on wildlife is teaching passionate students who can make big changes. This is especially true with undergraduate students, she said, so that they know they have someone who cares and can nudge them in the right direction.

“I think you have to lead by example,” she said. “If I participate, then they will participate.”

Ellis-Felege said she is honored and humbled that her students took the time to nominate her for the award.

“At a time when we see challenges both in higher education and the wildlife arena and conservation dollars, to know you’ve got students supporting you and helping you, that’s a huge thing,” she said.

She hopes to see the chapter grow and influence more students to step into leadership roles.

“I’m super appreciative of TWS and of the wonderful and amazing students I have,” she said. “The award is a reflection of them and their hard work, and I appreciate it. Many faculty might say this, but I have the best students.”

Dana KobilinskyDana Kobilinsky is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact her at dkobilinsky@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about her article. You can follow her on Twitter at @DanaKobi.

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