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On Placement with Dunescapes: ‘Great Experiences’ by Rhys

Based at Studland Bay with our National Trust team, placement student Rhys reflects on the things he learned and enjoyed as part of Dynamic Dunescapes.

Allow me to preface this reflection on the Dynamic Dunescapes placement with the fact that I am an international student. Even as I spent time learning ecological concepts in university, there was this disconnect present between me and the natural landscapes surrounding me. I knew facts but had no experience in the practical sense. Finding opportunities to learn the ins and outs of actual field work was difficult — and decreased by my unfamiliarity with the UK, reliance on public transport, and lack of confidence navigating volunteering.

Rhys

I found the Dunescapes placement by luck. Another internship had fallen through due to COVID, and I desperately craved some field work experience. Not only did I know it was important for my future work, but I thought the idea sounded fun. Considering that all placements were quite far afield from my University, I chose based on the projects listed on the Dunescapes site. The information on the Studland Bay site mentioned monitoring invertebrates and plants, two things that I found very interesting. I had no idea what to expect. I went into the initial volunteer debrief thinking it was going to be like a job interview.

Suffice to say, I was deeply nervous. I knew I had no experience, and that my knowledge of British wildlife was deeply lacking.

Now, at the time of writing this, I am no longer nervous. I am comfortable in my skills — knowing what I have already done, what I need to re-try, and what I need to try for the first time — and I haven’t even finished the placement yet (at the time of writing this section). In a handful of weeks, I’ve gained more field experience than my entire locked-down university experience.

There is still plenty more to learn. I have heard the other placement students talking about the things they’ve done, their friends have done, or that they want to do. They guide me towards my next steps now that I have taken that perilous first one. Due to the nature of the placement, with work occurring every day over the course of five weeks, I established a rapport with the others, and we bolstered each other’s experiential learning.

All of this was hugely beneficial in a way I don’t think a casual, once-a-week volunteering experience wouldn’t have been. I find it useful to categorise the benefits into three subsections:

 

Skills

Though I cannot reflect on the ordinary, out-of-lockdown university experience, my “normal” semester revealed that hands-on field work could be few and far between in the early years. Unlike a lab, field work required more commuting, more walking, more time, making it difficult to do much far afield from the university campus. As a consequence, they often required skipping lectures, and thus couldn’t be done as often. It could be possible to gain practical experience in practical skills by volunteering in term-time, but that was locked up behind the fact that Tier 4 Visas only give you 20 hours per week of volunteering or work. The short-term financial security coming from work was a priority, and thus Dunescapes has been the first time I’ve been out doing ecological field work in the field since starting university two years ago. In just five weeks, I refreshed old skills such as using quadrats, and was trained to operate more advanced systems such as a differential GPS. This is substantially more than I achieved during two years at university.

 

Guidance

Something I’ve expressed to mentors before is that I didn’t know where to start with learning things. There are a lot of field work skills, and unless someone sits you down with a specific project, choosing one to start with can lead to confusion or frustration. By virtue of Dunescapes having a mission and a collection of projects in mind, they could point me to the things I would have to do right now. But, perhaps more helpfully, having that initial point led to other ideas. Other volunteers and people we worked with would mention specific things I could decide to try alongside more information that would help me judge if those things were important to me. Dunescapes helped me take the first step into exploring fieldwork, and now I can roam down the paths others mentioned both with purpose and offhandedly.

 

Confidence

As mentioned earlier, I was nervous about doing ecology work. As an international student, I was worried that my lack of familiarity with local species would be an immense setback. Now, I know that my fears were unfounded, and on top of it all… I can identify countless more species than I could before! While this placement was not species-identification oriented, this kind of “side-effect” was very welcome and has helped me feel more confident looking for further volunteering, internships, and even jobs!

All this is to say that the Dunescapes placement was extraordinarily valuable to me. I am sure it has strengthened me (my skills, my confidence…) in ways that I haven’t yet put into words. I would love to see others granted this opportunity!

About the Author

Rhys Hague
Dunescapes Placement Student

Rhys studies Ecology and Conservation at the University of St. Andrews. He is particularly interested in studying coastlines, with an interest in rocky shore and tidal marsh environments. The Dunescapes placement was an opportunity for him to explore previously-unfamiliar ecological systems, all while learning and strengthening fieldwork skills.