Paving the Way for the Bird Advocates of Tomorrow

Five years since its inception, the Audubon Campus program continues to expand and introduce potential career opportunities to student leaders across the country.
Josh Heiser, Sofia Maass, and Ella Lunney, students from Allegheny College Bird Club, during the Audubon Fall Council Meeting in 2022. Photo: Gustavo Figueroa/Audubon

June is a time where most college seniors are looking towards the future and what lies ahead. But in these past few months, Josh Heiser, graduating Biology and Environmental Science at Allegheny College and president and founder of the Allegheny College Bird Club, can’t help but reflect on his time - both at the institution and with his campus chapter. And while he is saying goodbye to this particular chapter, the Audubon on Campus program, and all it provided—from the networking opportunities with local chapter members to building a thriving birding community at Allegheny College—will always stay with him.

Five years ago, Audubon launched the Audubon on Campus program. Aimed to foster the next generation of conservationists, the program provides educational, advocacy, networking, and career development opportunities in science and conservation. Some of those opportunities include partnering with local chapters, finding community at conservation festivals, connecting with fellow birders and Audubon staff at annual regional meetings, and attending advocacy days.

Currently, there are more than 70 campus chapters across the country, and the Audubon on Campus program is currently working with 130 schools nationwide to activate their efforts. Gustavo Figueroa, student outreach associate for the program, says the key to continuing positive momentum for campus chapters is the continuation (and expansion) of career development opportunities for student leaders..

“A vital part of this work is ensuring that the students see themselves as influential factors in bird conservation,” says Figueroa. “I’ve already seen many students create nurturing relationships  that have led to positions at their local chapters and at the National Audubon Society. That is why we advocate for student leaders to attend regional meetings, advocacy days, and conservation-related events. Each networking outlet and resource we provide are learning opportunities for a potential career in conservation.”

In addition to developing a deeper passion for birds and the places they need, the Audubon on Campus Program also gives student leaders the chance to participate in the larger Audubon network and conservation movement. And as a result of their engagement, students leaders explore viable professional careers in research and conservation, educational programming, and environmental advocacy.

Michael Kerrigan, founder of Midlands Audubon, the Audubon on Campus campus chapter at the University of South Carolina, pinpointed what that prospective career could be. Late last year, Kerrigan and a contingent of Audubon policy, communications, and programmatic staff, met with legislators at Capitol Hill to advocate for seabirds protections. Throughout his two-day visit to the nation’s capital, Kerrigan treated every instance – from his historical and political conversations with Audubon’s Director of Policy, Brent Newman, to his meeting with staff from Senator Bill Cassidy’s (R-LA) office – as an opportunity to reach his newfound goal of earning a Master’s in environmental policy.

“Conservation needs all skill sets. You do not need to be a biologist in the field to help birds,” says Kerrigan. “Networking with Audubon staff at the Seabird Fly-in has inspired me to pursue a career in conservation, perhaps even as a policy analyst with Audubon South Carolina!”

The future is bright and filled with hope for birds because of budding environmental policy experts like Kerrigan and passionate avian biologists like Heiser. They, along with campus chapter leaders across the country, are taking action and continuing to show up for birds.  Kerrigan came back to campus and encouraged other members of Midlands Audubon to attend next year’s Seabird Fly-in. And after graduation, Heiser started as an avian point count technician at the University of Delaware and plans to start a new seasonal field position at the Maryland Biodiversity Project in August.

It takes work and dedication to making connections, and staff across Audubon are working to make the Audubon on Campus efforts part of a cohesive whole. Those connections don't just make for better conservation, they also make for more empowered conservationists.

Last October, Audubon New York hosted its regional council meeting in Rochester, New York. The theme of the gathering was restoration work and youth leadership. Thanks to funding from an anonymous Audubon donor, Heiser and members of Allegheny College Bird Club, were able to attend and participate in the three-day gathering filled with nature walks, field trips, presentations, roundtable discussions, and networking opportunities. Laura McCarthy, Conservation Engagement Manager at Audubon New York noted that Allegheny’s attendance inspired everyone at the regional council meeting and helped other chapters see how, together, they are all part of a cohesive whole. 

“This is important work and it really is inspiring when we all come together and hear how we’re part of the larger network. We include campus chapters and other student leaders to build a space where they also see it as valuable for networking, skill building, and furthering their own goals,” says McCarthy. 

Coming back to campus after the council meeting, Heiser and his group felt inspired and more than capable to activate projects that were just ideas and getting off the ground.

“The regional council meeting created this feeling of, ‘We (the Allegheny Bird Club), can do this,’” says Heiser. “Connecting to chapters from Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut and listening to the discussions and ideas at various talks brought us together as a board. (Before this) we did not know where to start. Seeing people’s enthusiasm, hearing their ideas, socializing, and learning from other birders made us feel like our campus chapter can accomplish anything.”