Mike Whittemore has always felt at home in the wilderness.
“Growing up, my family did a lot to incorporate nature into my life and I think my childhood really helped me create a vision and a career path,” he said. “I’ve always felt it in my bones that I would want to work with nature and to conserve the most important lands in America for posterity.”
Now, as the land steward of Cape Cod and Massachusetts Islands, his “office” sprawls across more than 1,000 acres of protected land.
Whittemore works for The Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit with a mission to conserve and protect lands and waters around the world. He spends his days monitoring, restoring and protecting the area’s diverse ecosystems.
“It’s a very broad job,” he said. “I could be out there applying prescribed burns, or working with a contractor to create a savannah out of a forest, and maybe making maps for The Nature Conservancy”
He’s working his dream job now, but back in 2013, as an adjunct instructor teaching field biology at Hocking College, that dream felt far away.
He knew the type of conservation work he was interested in would require an advanced degree but was daunted by the prospect of going back to school and apprehensive about joining a program with an inflexible curriculum.
“I always had that in the back of my mind, but never as a kid did I ever think I’d get my master’s,” Whittemore said, “it was just such a big dream that it was sort of out of reach.”
He heard from peers at Hocking College that the Master of Science in Environmental Studies program at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs was a hands-on, interdisciplinary program.
“I took that as meaning you could actually have an applied project; you could get your master’s, but rather than doing your thesis you could actually do something positive for the community,” Whittemore said. “Two birds, one stone.”
After entering the program, he was happy to find that his first impression was correct. Whittemore was able to tailor his course load towards his specific interests and skills.
“I told my advisor this was the job I wanted when I was out of school, and they really worked with me to strengthen those skills,” he said. “[The Voinovich School] allowed me to take courses that I knew could really give me the expedience toward what I wanted to do when I got out of college, and that to me was invaluable.”
For his thesis project, Whittemore mapped plant communities in Crane Hollow Nature Preserve, a private preserve covering nearly 2,000 acres in Hocking County, Ohio. It was a “dream come true.”
“[Crane Hollow] is known for rare plants; there’s over 150 insect species new to science that were discovered in this little tiny tract of land,” he said. “It was like going to another world.”
Now that he’s doing what he loves, Whittemore takes time to share his passion for nature with kids who, like he did once, may feel like their dreams are out of reach.
”I’m most proud of having the opportunity to give back,” he said. “College was never an important aspiration growing up, [so] having the opportunity now to be a Big Brother in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program on Martha’s Vineyard, and coming up with a group to recruit volunteers specifically on Martha’s Vineyard to bring them conservation experience is probably what I’m most proud of.”