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I applied to DukeEngage-Costa Rica hoping that my experience would shed some light on my future path. I’ve always cared deeply about the environment but had no idea how exactly I was to pursue my passion. Four semesters of various environmental classes at Duke, plus a (boring) summer internship at a marine lab only made me more cynical about environmental protection efforts. I felt like nothing I did or learned made any real difference. While I toiled in the lab or classroom, the earth was not getting any cooler. I wasn’t excited about my prospects after graduation either, and glumly told myself that I needed to stop being so naive in believing that I could truly make a difference in the world.

DukeEngage has given me hope again. Specifically, the former Minister of Environment and Energy of Costa Rica, Mr. Carlos Manuel Rodriguez.

Now the Vice President of Conservation Policy at Conservation International, Mr. Rodriguez visited the Monteverde Institute last week to give a talk. (Yes, Costa Rica is a country where former Ministers, and even current Presidents, can casually stroll into a community institute to give talks). This talk, titled “Costa Rica: The Mouse That Roared,” was without question one of the best environmental talks I’ve ever heard. He touched upon many interesting and important issues, but two stood out to me the most. First, on the topic of reforestation, he explained how within three decades, Costa Rica went from taxing forested “unproductive” land to doubling its forests while tripling its GDP. Second, he spoke of visiting an indigenous village 12 years ago that had received $52,000 in government subsidies for their environmental services, and he saw first hand the new houses and schools that had been built with the money. His message: environmental protection brings well-being to the people.

Our own reforestation work here at DukeEngage has been the most meaningful work I’ve ever done.

These stories showed me how wrong I was in thinking that ordinary people could not hope to make a difference. The indigenous people lived in a rural community and did not have the privileges of a college education at a top American university like I do, yet they were able to make $52,000 worth of positive environmental impact. Our own reforestation work here at DukeEngage has been the most meaningful work I’ve ever done. I used to think that planting trees were nice, but a couple saplings in a public park would hardly make a dent in carbon levels. This summer, 12 college students planted over 3,000 trees in a month, many of which are endangered species that provide critical habitats in the biological corridor. Moreover, we’ve designed and conducted our very own forest integrity survey to measure the success of a reforestation 14 years ago. Our methods will help ensure future reforestation efforts are more successful. In our surveys with local farmers, we’ve heard how our trees are directly helping the farmers and local community — trees serve as windbreaks, provide shade for grazing cattle, and help cycle water and nutrients in the soil, among many other benefits. Efforts like ours have helped Costa Rica gradually recover its forests.

This summer has given me a fresh perspective on what it means to make a difference. Planting 3,000 trees isn’t eradicating climate change, but we have made a real impact, for the farmers, the local community, and the three-wattled bellbirds and other vulnerable endemic species that are making their way back along the Bellbird Biological Corridor. I still don’t know what I want to do for my future career, but I am going to face every option with an open mind. “Challenge yourself. Change your world.” The DukeEngage motto rings true.