Our group’s arrival to Portland was far from graceful and effortless. A week prior, we found out that our initial housing plan had fallen through and we would temporarily be living five miles outside the city. Our group leaders promised to facilitate grocery trips and encouraged us to look on the bright side — after all, the campus is beautiful and we’re surrounded by miles of forest trails. And while they succeeded in part (I visited three grocery stores within my first 24 hours here), we knew that we would be in for a challenge when we set out on Monday to traverse a maze (okay, an organized grid) of unfamiliar streets, clutching our phones and checking and rechecking our bus routes every two minutes.
Yet, while Carol and I navigated ourselves to and from The Nature Conservancy with varying degrees of success throughout the week, I spent my commutes watching the city through the bus window and trying to come to terms with the fact that I am wildly out of my comfort zone. While there is an app to guide me through Portland’s complex bus system, unfortunately, there is no app to guide me through my complex life.
I was born in the South and never ventured farther from home than Texas. I have strong opinions about country music and barbecue, but the Pacific Northwest is a mystery (Do you talk about the weather? Coffee? Birkenstocks? Sports? Do they even have sports here?) It’s not so much a culture shock as it is a removal of certain social guarantees that I had grown accustomed to yet never consciously recognized. Few people I’ve met were born and raised here; instead, the city is a melting pot of people from all parts of the U.S. And while Portland boasts a quirky personality–more strip clubs per capita than any other U.S. city, hundreds of food trucks, and attractions like the world’s largest continual chocolate waterfall–I am still lost in this contradictory city, struggling to figure out what ties Portland together.
But while I could move back to Durham having learned nothing about Portland, it would be unwise to ignore the questions and uncertainties I’m encountering on a more personal level. I spent my freshman year feeling lost and extremely indecisive about my major, but, as a rising sophomore now, I’m beginning to feel the pressure of choosing a path — along with the “so what do you want to do with that degree?” question that inevitably follows. I applied to the Portland program because I’m interested in environmental issues and loved an environmental humanities class that I took with Dr. Amanda Starling Gould last semester (#plug). Then I chose the Nature Conservancy position because I wanted to be exposed to options that combine scientific approaches with the more human side of conservation efforts rather than just field or lab work. I still don’t know how this experience is going to affect the route my life will eventually take, which is a bit of a scary thought. There isn’t a navigation app for everything.
So, for the last week, I’ve kept some notes on what I’ve learned, and I’m starting to compile a pretty solid collection of insights from the first week. For example, I’ve begun to appreciate the versatility of pasta and sandwiches when you’re on a tight budget. Now, nine days in, I find myself thinking back to my second full day here, when I got the wildest possible introduction to my temporary home: the Portland Pride parade. Growing up in the South, most of us were afraid to say the words “homosexual” or “bisexual” or “transgender” out loud, much less declare these orientations to our friends and family. To go from a culture in which many people are still firm believers in “praying the gay away” to a place where crowds turn out in the tens of thousands to cheer at the sight of total strangers embracing their identities — it was incredible, in the most alien of ways. At Pride, I found one of the things that bring cohesion and a sense of community to Portland. Rather than being united by shared music, history, background, or food, Portlanders seem more concerned with kindness and supporting others to be unique in their own ways. They are brought together by their differences and their understanding that community is what makes a city vibrant and special.
Yet, when I went into work on Monday, it was a stark contrast to the colorful party that I had experienced the day before. I spend the hours from 9 to 5 in a 4’x4’ corner of the office beside a drooping plant and a box of books on environmental law. Such is the life of an intern, I guess. I should note that I don’t actually mind the content of the work, and I’m glad that the research I’m doing will contribute to a lot of important work that the Nature Conservancy does. But while I know that I want to pursue environmental work after college, I can tell by my constant need to stretch or walk around that I’m not suited for a desk job. In this short week, I’ve learned something about the career path I want to take: I want to look for a job with a bit more pop and color to it than simply research and writing, even if these tasks make up the backbone of any organization.
Luckily, in the meantime, our office has a rooftop eating area with a bed of strawberries and a wonderful view. I’m in a beautiful city with some of the friendliest people you’ll meet anywhere. I can spend my afternoons and lunch breaks finding new cafes and parks, and on the weekends, our group has plenty of adventures in store. There’s a lot to look forward to, even if I don’t always know the way.