In 1996, the people at NOAA had a bright idea—to seek out gifted postgraduates and match them up with coastal zone management programs for two years of on-the-job training in management and policy careers.
"The fellowship is a great deal for fellows, coastal programs, and taxpayers."
Twenty years later, that bright idea casts an impressive light—106 coastal management fellows from 42 universities have boosted the reach and effectiveness of coastal stewardship in 26 states and territories.
"The fellowship is a great deal for fellows, coastal programs, and taxpayers," says Jeffrey L. Payne, acting director of the NOAA Office for Coastal Management, which administers the program. "Fellows get first-rate training and networking opportunities. Programs get the best and brightest for critical projects. And when graduating fellows decide to stay in the field—and many do—the taxpayer gets seasoned public servants who can hit the ground running."
The influence of the fellowship doesn't end when the stint ends, say several former fellows, who describe here what was special about their time in the program and how it marked the course of their careers.
As a newly minted fellow 20 years ago with the Oregon Coastal Management Program, Chad Nelsen recalls that as a lifelong Californian, "I was taken under the wing of a colleague and fellow surfer while I got to know a whole new coastline."
Today, Nelsen advocates for surfers and coastlines nationwide as the chief executive officer of the Surfrider Foundation, an international organization that champions "the protection and enjoyment of the world's ocean, waves and beaches."
"The fellowship was an instrumental stepping stone in my career," says Nelsen, whose project back then was to start up a management information system for the Coos Bay estuary and watershed. "In grad school, people learn how to translate science and policy for decision makers—but what this graduate from a fancy school learned during the fellowship was to be sensitive to local culture and context."
At that time, rural Coos Bay's 30-percent unemployment, the result of decimated fishing and forestry industries, left residents suspicious of outside interests. Nelsen listened, and applied what he learned to his project.
Today, Nelsen makes sure the nation pays attention to what he calls "surfonomics", adding, "We have shown that the estimated three million U.S. surfers are an economic force." To that end, Surfrider has become the go-to group for grassroots initiatives concerning clean water, public access, plastic pollution, and other issues.
For instance, Surfrider worked with several partners to establish Puerto Rico's first mainland marine reserve, which helps protect threatened coral reefs in the region, and for which Surfrider was awarded a Coral Reef Task Force award in 2002.
"Respecting local cultures and attitudes is something I learned through practical experience in the fellowship, and in Surfrider, that lesson has served me well."
Wes Shaw is a talented entrepreneur devoted to strengthening coastal resilience tools and spreading their use from state to state. He says the seeds for his business talents were sown during his fellowship project developing the StormSmart Coasts site for the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management.
"The fellowship absolutely launched my career," says Shaw. "And I learned some really important things, like the way government happens and the opportunities it presents."
After the fellowship, a continued interest in the tool led Shaw to form the company Blue Urchin and bring StormSmart Coasts to 10 additional states with the support of regional and federal partners.
More recently, Shaw developed MyCoast.org, up and running in six states, which leverages images and data people provide to paint a much fuller picture of king tides, coastal storms, marine debris, and other coastal events. The home page currently shows more than 3,300 individual reports, with hundreds of new reports coming in.
And as a consultant to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Shaw helps coastal communities boost their adaptation efforts so they can qualify for lower federal flood insurance rates.
He credits the fellowship with amazing networking opportunities, then and now.
"I immediately started meeting with people several steps higher in their careers, which was a real ego boost as a fellow," notes Shaw. "Now, years later, I can call on the hive-mind of these amazing former fellows to ask them, 'How did you deal with this or that?' It's not an exaggeration to say that the fellowship opened doors that would have remained closed to me for years without it."
Kelsey Gianou completed her fellowship with the Washington Coastal Zone Management Program not very long ago—July 2014—but already her achievements have gotten the attention of the White House.
A shoreline stabilization guidebook written by Gianou during her fellowship was featured in recommendations to the president by the White House Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience.
This task force, which encourages resilience by promoting green and natural infrastructure, includes 26 U.S. governors, mayors, county officials, and tribal leaders.
"I never thought I'd be in a position for this to happen, especially so early in my career," says Gianou, who is now employed as an environmental planner at the same program where she served her fellowship.
"The job I have now is a direct result of my fellowship experience," adds Gianou. "I learned a lot about communicating complex habitat and management issues by pulling together pieces of information to tell a bigger story about shoreline stabilization. The experience I gained, and the positive response, made me a shoo-in for my current job, which involves writing Washington's marine spatial plan."
Gianou's report was published by Washington State and is posted on its website. It has been brought to shoreline planning events, shared with the agency and regional leaders on the topic, and used to create outreach materials. And her shoreline stabilization report will become the "Washington State" chapter in a national living shorelines textbook now in development.
"My fellowship was all about learning how to bring together scientific information, policy, and an understanding of social challenges," concludes Gianou, "and this skill still plays a role in my work every day."