Baltimore teacher Tamara Jolly found solace at Wanakena’s ranger school during the pandemic
By Tracy Ormsbee
On a chilly Adirondack day in early December, Tamara Jolly and her fiancé Colin Hackett arrive from Baltimore, Md. to visit the SUNY-ESF Ranger School in Wanakena. The last time they were both on campus, they were students in 2020 in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown. They miss this place: the hard work, the quiet of nature, the close relationships formed with classmates in their safe bubble.
They point out the area beyond the student parking lot where Jolly and other female students left the men behind to use the chainsaws to clear an area for a memorial. A “girl-power day,” Jolly calls it. They point to the windows of their respective dorm rooms, Jolly’s offering a view from her bed to the trees and Oswegatchie River. Here’s where they played basketball and kickball, hiked, and where students set up hammocks.
And across the river, at a remote campsite beyond the trees, Hackett, 36, proposed to Jolly, 34, the night before classes started, with wine and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It was a clear night with a meteor shower.
“I felt like I was in a movie,” Jolly said.
Hackett plans to take the Civil Service exam in the next round in 2022 and then go through the Department of Environmental Conservation’s Forest Ranger Academy. Jolly doesn’t know whether she will go on to be a forest ranger or use what she’s learned for her current job as a science teacher. Both agree they’d like to live and work in the Adirondacks as soon as it is possible.
Hackett followed in his 90-year-old grandfather Charles Nevin’s footsteps. Nevin graduated from the ranger school in 1952 and had a long career with DEC.
Jolly’s path to Wanakena—where she became valedictorian, found her physical strength, and was the only Black student in a class of 56—was more circuitous. She calls it “one of the hardest learning experiences of my life, physically and mentally. It challenged me in such a different way.”
Here’s how she became the second ever Black woman to graduate from the program:
Back in 2017 at City Neighbors High School in Baltimore City where Jolly was teaching, the district planned to cut environmental science as a graduation requirement. A nature lover and fierce advocate for her students, she was concerned.
She applied for a sabbatical in environmental science and climate, with a notion to go to the Arctic or Mexico, and to gain expertise. And Hackett, who works for Amtrak, decided to take a year off and apply to the ranger school in Wanakena as his grandfather had done. But when Jolly visited the school with him in February of 2020, everything changed.
Would it be OK if she attended with him? It was a better fit for her plans.
When they arrived in August in the middle of the pandemic, they had to spend two weeks in isolation with other students from out of state. The school took their car keys to ensure they wouldn’t leave campus. They were tested regularly and wore masks all day unless they were outdoors and six feet apart.
The pandemic provided a unique experience in these modern times: it was more like classes of the past, where students bonded around the wilderness experience. In non-pandemic times, students leave on weekends, to go home or return to Syracuse University to hang out with friends.
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Jolly’s focus was Environmental and Natural Resources Conservation. She learned forestry, tree and bird identification—hands-on learning and the language of forestry. She earned 44 credit hours in that year and today, she said, sees forests differently.
“It was that much more of a beautiful experience, she said. “I soaked it in.”
As the sole Black and oldest female student, she mentored young women and changed the perception of people of color, she said.
Her professor, Vanessa Rojas, who taught her mapping classes at Wanakena, agrees. With a student ratio of two women to 10 men, Jolly once spoke up and called a group together with professors to discuss frustrations from the women.
“I saw Tamara as someone who was looking out for the other students’ well-being during a tough year,” Rojas said. “She was a great advocate for all the students.”
Jolly said she wouldn’t send her students to the ranger school without some systemic changes.
“I know what racism feels like, even when it’s not intentional but you still have to deal with it.” she said. “There are definitely young people who would have had a more difficult time having to navigate a space that is very white, very male.”
Choosing to go back to that space, something she remembered from growing up in western Pennsylvania, scared her. But the openness of the younger students, their willingness to have conversations, surprised her.
One experience was with a young male student with whom she had conflicting views but a friendly relationship.
“At a final fire pit bonding, he got everyone kind of silent and thanked me for changing his perception of Black people, that he grew up with wrong views of racism and pledged to me he would make sure he corrects those and help correct that back where’s he’s from,” she said.
“I didn’t expect that to be my mission there, but I left feeling very happy with the relationships I built with the people there.”
The knowledge Jolly gained from the program is making a difference for her students in Baltimore and for the Adirondacks.
She created a nature block where she takes students outside to listen quietly and document their experiences. She’s adapting the ICE program, which now integrates chemistry and earth science, for an urban population.
“Students deserve the same experience,” she said.
The Adirondack Diversity Initiative enlisted Jolly as a fellow to help diversify the next ranger application pool. And she’s working as a master teacher ambassador with the E.O. Wilson Foundation adapting lessons for teachers to use to infuse nature education into their discussions.
And personally, the biologist, Teach for America alumni, and admitted “Type A,” is learning to slow down after her time in Wanakena. She and Hackett camp in an Astro van named Guinevere and she keeps binoculars nearby for her new birding hobby.
Her sister refers to “before- and after-ranger-school Tamara.”
“I never realized how much I need fresh air and quiet. I didn’t know how much my soul felt at peace in the Adirondacks,” she said. “My city guard faded away.”