A Day’s Work: Kathy Ambrosini, director of education for Mohonk Preserve

Kathy Ambrosini, director of education for Mohonk Preserve. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

Growing up in the small New Jersey suburb of River Vale, Kathy Ambrosini remembers going on just one field trip during her entire childhood. It wasn’t a very exciting destination, just a small nature center where they fed the ducks bread and listened to the vibrations of honey bees, but that was enough, as it turned out, to make an indelible impression on a young mind. “It only took that one field trip,” she says now, “for me to decide, ‘I love this! I want to do more of this!’”

Ambrosini made good on that pledge and then some. As the director of education for Mohonk Preserve, she oversees a wide-ranging program of nature-based activities and instruction. Adults are offered a year-round schedule of guided nature walks and natural science lectures, and young people can choose from an abundance of outdoor experiences that include summer camps and a junior ranger program. Students in the New Paltz Central School District are introduced to environmental education through the Preserve’s field studies program that begins in kindergarten and runs through sixth grade, an educational opportunity now extended by new nature-based STEM studies for sixth graders and a project-based community service program for seventh graders. And in recent years, the Preserve has expanded their student education programs to include at-risk youth from Newburgh schools.

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Ambrosini began working for Mohonk Preserve in 1992, hired as a part-time school program coordinator. That lasted a year; by the following year, she was the full-time director of education. She stepped back from the position briefly when she started a family, continuing to work part-time at the Preserve, but by 2002 was back as director. “I’m in my 26th year now at the Preserve,” she says, “which tells you how much I love working here.”

Her job duties are varied and change seasonally. “The diversity of the work is one of the things I like most about it. I could be writing a grant in the morning and meeting with teachers in the afternoon, or getting out and teaching a class or supervising staff. And there are always a variety of projects to work on over the course of a year.”

Fall and spring are the busiest times of the year at the Preserve, but every season has its tasks. “In the dead of winter, I spend a lot of my time doing grant-writing and finding funding for our education programs; we do that year-round, but there’s a bit more focus on it at that time. And although it’s not our peak season by any means, we do have some schools that come up then.” 

Winter brings the annual lecture series held at the SUNY campuses in partnership with the Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership, and is also when the summer camp programs are organized. “Registration usually opens in February and we start getting calls in December. It’s amazing how many families want to plan ahead and know they have their summer settled.”

Ambrosini oversees four full-time educators and one seasonal staff member. Part of her job involves supervising the staff when they’re teaching classes, in order to make sure consistency in the programs is maintained regardless of who is teaching. “We have a great team, and we do work as a team when it comes to putting together new programs and figuring out what we want to do differently next season.” 

Creating new educational programs is an aspect of her job that Ambrosini says she finds particularly rewarding. “Like most teachers, I love that opportunity to be creative; to not just teach a program but think about what you can do next.”

And it has always been important to her as director of education, she says, that she isn’t just administrating programs from the office, but rather “getting out there, staying in touch with how the programs are being experienced in the outdoors.”

Ambrosini also works with teachers in the New Paltz Central School District developing curriculum for environmental education programs that begin in the classroom and bring students up to the Ridge to do their field studies. “We’re different than a typical nature center, where a class will go on a field trip for an hour or two and that’s that. When they come to the Preserve, we keep them for the full day. They really get an immersive experience, not just with the content we’re trying to teach them, but also having a positive outdoor experience in a beautiful, natural place; to see and touch what they’re studying.”

As part of a focus in years back on developing programs that would “come down off the Ridge and go into the community,” Ambrosini created the Pond Keepers program originally intended for special education students, but now one of their most popular programs for all students K-5, she says. Pond Keepers brings nature into classrooms through a ten-gallon aquarium stocked with local pond life that stays in the school for two weeks, during which time students learn about the organisms and develop a project.

The relationship with the New Paltz School District has been ongoing since 1985, but in recent years the Preserve has extended its programs to students in grades 5-8 at two middle schools in Newburgh. The students visit Mohonk Preserve approximately twice a month over the course of the school year, “and they are our most polite, appreciative students,” says Ambrosini. “They always ask at the end of the programs, ‘Can we have another 15 minutes?’ They are in their element here, and it helps them with stresses they deal with every day. One of my big initiatives now is working toward forming internships for them when they get to college, with the goal to develop an employment path for them. We’d like to see them become educators, or rangers, or conservation scientists… it would be a huge success to be able to help them on that path.”

Ambrosini lives in Gardiner with her husband, Christian Ambrosini, a senior counselor at Wallkill Correctional Facility. Their son, Benjamin, is in his second year at SUNY Ulster, studying communications and media arts. In her spare time, she enjoys outdoor activities in all seasons, especially cross-country skiing, canoeing and kayaking. “I prefer to go out on a quiet stream or paddle out into a quiet cove on a lake,” she says. “That’s where I find my grounding, where I feel most at home.”

In chatting with Ambrosini recently, we asked her a few questions about her path to becoming an environmental educator and what a day’s work is like in that profession. 

How did you get into this line of work?

When I graduated high school, my family moved up to the Berkshires. I knew that I really wanted to work outdoors but didn’t know what specific thing I wanted to do. So I took a job on a goat dairy farm in Columbia County. The farm had other animals; pigs, and horses, ponies, turkeys, chickens… I loved working with the animals, but what I didn’t love was getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning. I started at Berkshire Community College, and got an associate’s degree in biology there. I continued to work at the farm part-time, and then in trying to discover what there was other than farming, I volunteered at an animal hospital and thought, ‘maybe large animal veterinary is my work to do.’ 

I loved veterinary surgeries, so I was thinking I might do that, and transferred to Cornell University, but quickly realized that veterinary work is a lot of lab and indoor work. I ended up majoring in natural resources and concentrated in wildlife science. While I was there, because Cornell is a land grant college and I was in the ag school, I was exposed to Cornell Cooperative Extension. I got a work study job with their 4-H youth program, and that launched me into working with kids. 

I loved working with them, and being able to introduce them to some of what I was enjoying learning at Cornell. That got me excited about teaching, and being an educator. After graduation, I took a job with Putnam and Northern Westchester BOCES and lived at their satellite facility for outdoor education in Carmel, teaching and writing curriculum for two years. And loved that enough that I decided I wanted to do more than just write curriculum, I wanted to direct a program. I needed a master’s to do that, so I went to Northern Illinois University and got a master’s degree in outdoor teacher education and a graduate teacher assistantship out there.

I’ve interviewed a few other people who work in similar fields to yours, and it seems like you all had the same experience, of knowing you loved animals and wanted to work outdoors but not being sure what the career paths to that were.

A lot of folks in environmental education take a circuitous path. I think it’s an under-represented field at career fairs; you don’t often hear people talking about going into environmental education. Students don’t always realize you can be a teacher, but work in a non-formal sector, whether it’s in the outdoors setting or as a museum educator. It’s definitely a process of putting yourself in the right place so you can meet people and have great faculty advisors. And it’s important to just experience the diversity of things that are out there. I worked at a kennel, too, and on another farm… I had a lot of related experiences along the way.

What attributes does a person need to be an environmental educator?

I would say you have to not only love teaching, but you have to love people, as well. You may love working with kids, but you are going to work with people of all ages and from all different backgrounds and cultures, so you have to be able to listen and to be a lifelong learner. You just can’t stop, because people change, the community changes, folks come and go, and if you’re going to keep programs relevant you really have to pay attention to those trends. We look at what’s happening in the region, and also at what’s happening in the education department in New York State and nationally. We’re also affiliate members of the New York State Outdoor Education Association and the North American Association for Environmental Education. Diversity in the schools and inclusion is a big issue right now, and everybody in our field is trying to stay current, keep their training up.

What advice would you give to someone contemplating going into environmental education?

I do this quite often, actually. I’m in Cornell’s mentorship program, so I talk to a lot of students who come asking that very same question. Part of my advice to them is to do some volunteer work at an organization like the Mohonk Preserve, so they can really gain experience and understand what the day-to-day activities are. And to make sure that that is something you enjoy, not just in the fall, but in the dead of winter, and in March when you’ll be stepping through mud, and in the heat of summer. And also to have an understanding that there are going to be those really heavy seasons when you’re going to be busy as a beaver, and make sure that is something that works for you. 

Also be practical; understand that you’ll probably have irregular hours. Main events are going to be happening on the weekends, so make sure that’s okay with you. Especially if you’re interested in teaching, because those are not teacher hours. Don’t expect it to be nine-to-five. And consider a master’s degree if you want to do more than just teach the curriculum that is handed to you. If you want to be able to create programs you’re going to need that graduate degree. That’s something to think about.

What is the most challenging part of your work at the Preserve?

In our peak seasons we’re going full-tilt. And everyone wants to come at the same time, whether it’s tourists or teachers all wanting to have their field studies booked for the same exact time. We typically have a waiting list for schools, and often a waiting list for the public programs, as well. 

The other big challenge, given the model that we’ve adopted of trying to bring more underserved students to the Preserve, is that requires a large dedication of time. Not just to writing new curriculum and developing new programs, but also to understanding the environment and culture the students are coming from. We can’t just bring them out here and immediately start on a hike with them the way we do with our Hudson Valley students. We have to spend some time with them first, understanding their concerns and fears, and just the feeling of being out-of-place for some of them. Also, a lot of them are coming without socks in the winter; they don’t have the right clothes for the outdoors, so it’s not just funding the program; we had to buy heavy-duty winter clothes so they can come up year-round.

What part of being director of education do you enjoy the most?

That’s funny, that would also be what’s been the hardest! The most rewarding days I spend here have been the days that I’m out with these kids; the at-risk middle school students. And I think it’s just because they reflect back to you the energy and the time you put into making this program happen. They’re very expressive. They don’t hold much back. I’ve never had kids before who, when they get on the bus, every single one of them comes over and shakes my hand, saying ‘thank you, we can’t believe you’re letting us come, we didn’t know we could go outside in the rain.’ While all of our classes enjoy and appreciate their day here, these folks are the most expressive about it. And that has been incredibly rewarding.

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