Five Questions with Environmental Educator Theo Combos
From North Carolina to California to Alaska – NC State College of Natural Resources graduate empowers youth outdoors.
Theo Combos graduated with a degree in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management in December of 2018. Since then, he’s worked in environmental education positions around the country. We sat down to talk with him about his unique experiences in this field.
What inspired you to study Parks, Recreation and Tourism?
As a young boy I would tell my mom that one day I wanted to “get paid to have fun.” When I was accepted into North Carolina State University, I assumed that you could not have a profession that enables you to work outdoors in exciting environments.
I quickly realized how silly this approach was and that I needed to pursue what I was passionate about – working outdoors and working with people. This realization led me to transfer to the College of Natural Resources to pursue a degree in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism management. I knew I had “arrived” when I fit right into the small, connected classrooms and began to develop relationships with both my peers and professors. I felt so thankful to be in a school where the professors were passionate, personal, and really cared not only about seeing their students be successful but also that they were healthy and happy.
What experiences have you had working in environmental education?
I graduated in December of 2018 and immediately moved to the Southern California mountains to work in environmental education. Being able to connect my love for the outdoors and for nature with students of various upbringings, socioeconomic backgrounds, and ethnicity was my heart’s delight. It was not often a day would go by that I would be out on a hike with the students on a trail and reflect on how THIS was my job!
Towards the end of my contract in SoCal I stumbled across a position with the Student Conservation Association as a Highschool Trail Crew Leader. This was a chance to get a full-expense paid summer to explore “the last frontier”, Alaska, working with local high school youth on trails in incredible places on a daily basis. How could I say no? So I decided to fly out and participate in what I would say was the greatest summer of my life.
The entire month of June a co-leader and I worked with local youth in Palmer, Alaska to clear vegetation out of trail corridors on mountain bike trails in Government Peak Recreation Area. Our students got very close to one another and it was truly an enriching experience for all of us.
My second “hitch” of the summer went from mid-July to mid-August where an entirely different team and I (and ~1000 pounds of supplies and food) flew out to Katmai National Park where we helped clear the overgrown Dumpling Mountain trail. If you have ever seen a picture of a brown bear catching salmon out of a waterfall, there is a 95% chance this picture was taken at Katmai National Park.
This was a much harder experience, camping out every day and living with the students – being responsible for their physical and mental health. The challenge, however, made it all the more rewarding.
How have you applied what you learned in the College of Natural Resources to these experiences?
Through my experiences in southern California and Alaska, I utilized a significant amount of the education and knowledge I gained from the College of Natural Resources. I would say the most relevant courses were Outdoor Leadership and Adventure Leadership, taught by Susanne Morais. They taught me valuable skills in risk management, trip planning, team building and environmental education. Another class that helped me greatly was Interpretation in Recreation Services, where I learned how to provide interpretive programs that really make an impact on the viewers. I used these skills in my environmental education lessons and classes with my students out on the trails – something we did daily and called nature nuggets.
Lastly, my Leadership and Supervision class was immensely beneficial in Alaska. Every day we faced high-risk situations, utilizing swinging tools and living in wild and dangerous environments. Being a confident leader was key to ensure the success and safety of our students. I still remember vividly from that class that the greatest motivator for humans is recognition. I utilized this to recognize and encourage the students on the trail, increasing motivation and morale.
How were you able to impact communities through environmental education? How did this impact you?
Something that has recently become very apparent to me is the demographics that dominate the outdoor recreation and environmental education world: mostly Caucasians in the middle or upper class.
I absolutely adore the outdoors and spending my time in nature in various forms – trail running, mountain biking, snowboarding, etc. I want others to love and enjoy them as well, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give to a current College of Natural Resources student?
Develop strong relationships with your professors! Don’t take it for granted that you are rubbing shoulders with some of the most brilliant minds in the entire world in their direct line of study! If they know you and know your passions, they’re much more likely to be able to line you up with a great career or connection they have. I plan on keeping in touch with many of my professors and using them as professional references for the years to come.
Secondly, I know there are tons of group projects and I totally understand why they can feel burdensome. I, however, learned to love them. Towards the end of college, it stopped becoming about making a good grade and it started becoming more about how could I best leave my impact on my community partner. It helped to connect you more to the project and to the partner as well as prepare you for the real world. The good grade would always come as a result!