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Sowing the Seeds of a Sustainable Career
2009, Q3 (September 20, 2009)
By Karen Rhodes, NC State University Chapter Member

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the August 2009 edition of Technically Speaking, the NC State University Chapter newsletter

Karen learns how to top tobacco.
Karen learns how to top tobacco. Credit: Suzanne O'Connell

At the end of 2008, I was an editor for the custom-published magazine of a famous Las Vegas resort. I was writing captions and blurbs about things like Jimmy Choo shoes, Harry Winston jewelry pieces, and the celebrities who wore them—and I was bored to tears.

I had worked as a magazine editor and writer for about a decade. During the last four of those years, my work had given me the opportunity to go on a Caribbean cruise, to stay at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica, to help throw an all-night magazine launch party at a hot Las Vegas night club, and to meet a few celebrities (and/or their agents) along the way. Sure, those things were fun. But celebrities, trends, and luxury items just weren’t really my “thing.” I needed to do something more substantial, engaging, and constructive.

In the fall of 2008, I applied and was accepted into the M.S. in Technical Communication program at N.C. State, to begin in January 2009. The timing proved to be perfect. In December, I was one of 13 employees to be laid off due to the economy. Thankfully, the layoff spared me the decision of whether to resign when I started school. It also freed me to pursue what I wanted to pursue: a broader range of technical and communication skills and a better understanding of the environmental, energy-related, agricultural, political, and socioeconomic issues facing the world today.

The Center for Environmental Farming Systems addresses many of these issues as they relate to food and farming systems. I learned about CEFS from a casual conversation with a relative just a few weeks into my coursework. I told her this was exactly the type of organization I hoped to work with once I had my degree in hand, and she suggested I get in touch with Dr. Nancy Creamer, director of CEFS and a professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at N.C. State. I contacted Dr. Creamer to find out how a technical communication student could get involved. It turned out that CEFS needed help with its Web site and maybe a few printed materials.

Flowering tobacco
Flowering tobacco. Credit: Suzanne O'Connell

While most of CEFS’ summer interns live and work at a research farm in Goldsboro, I live in Raleigh and work at N.C. State. While most of the interns work with crops and livestock, I work with CSS and Dreamweaver. I travel to Goldsboro once a week to join the other interns for the lecture and field trip components of the internship program. At the farm, I have eaten some of the best blueberries I’ve tasted in years, I have measured pasture grass density, and I have cultured mycorrhizal fungi from the roots of cover crops. This week, we will see a dairy farm with several hundred goats, and we will have the opportunity to sample (and purchase) goat cheese fresh from the farm. No wonder I love this internship.

The two biggest challenges of my internship: trying to create an information architecture (IA) that clearly outlines the many initiatives CEFS is spearheading, and trying to get my CSS code to do what I want it to do. I’m new to CEFS, and I’m new to CSS, so I’ve had a learning curve in both areas. To tackle the IA challenge, I’m communicating with stakeholders across the organization to learn the real-world hierarchy and connections within the organization so that the site will reflect that in the online world. It’s a little tricky in that there are some organizational changes under consideration, so I have to make sure that my architecture and design are flexible enough to accommodate any changes that actually occur. To tackle the CSS challenge, I am learning from trial-and-error attempts, a stack of CSS reference books, visits to Adobe’s online help pages, and probably an impending phone call to one of my technical communication professors.

The wonderful thing about this internship is that, to use a farming metaphor, it is sowing the seeds for what promises to be a bountiful future. I am exploring a number of interest areas: agriculture, the environment, sustainability, policy, public relations, social media, Web design, information architecture, usability, accessibility, and more. It’s the best of both worlds, real and virtual: I can get outside and touch the earth and know that my work is literally “grounded” in something important, and I can feed my “geeky” side, fiddling around with code until I master it. And at the end of the day, I can come home feeling good about how I spent those eight hours. Instead of using my talents to write about superficial subjects, I’ve used them for something significant—and, in more ways than one, sustainable.

Karen Rhodes can be reached at kar789 at gmail dot com. End of article.

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