Meet the Graduate Students! Class of 2020, part 2

This is part 5 in the series: Meet the Graduate M.Ed. Students

This is part 2 of our Cohort 18 Graduate Student Introductions. You can also click to view part 1 and part 3.

After two months in the field, learning, getting to know each other, and taking many 90s band photos, the new graduate students from the Graduate M.Ed. Program‘s 18th Cohort have finally settled into their Residency in the North Cascades! Each member of our cohort will bring their unique backgrounds, experiences, and personalities to the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center as they continue to learn and engage with our new home. In my work study position as blog post writer and editor, I’ve been tasked with continuing the tradition of allowing all of these weird, wild and wonderful individuals to introduce themselves.

Below is part two of a three-part series, sharing with you a brief look at who we are, why we’re here, and anything else we think you should know about us. If you work or play around the  learning center, you are likely to run into us, so take a few minutes to get to know us here!

Christine Sanderson:

Christine excited to get on the water near the Salish Sea. Photo by Matt Ferrell

After graduating from college in my home state of Wisconsin, I moved to Guatemala to work for an international non-profit. I had the opportunity to lead and manage educational backpacking programs for young adults. In my three years of work there, I gained copious amounts of hands-on experience in experiential education and non-profit leadership, as well as a serious addiction to Guatemalan coffee! After moving back to the U.S last fall, I realized that I wanted more formal training as I continue to follow my passion for creative education. I chose this graduate program because it allows me to pursue a Master of Education while continuing to learn in a setting that challenges the way we think about traditional education.

My first months of learning, working, and playing in the North Cascades have already been filled with so many incredible moments that it’s almost impossible to pick a favorite. Paddling down the Skagit River to the confluence with the Salish Sea certainly ranks near the top. We timed our paddle just right to have lunch with the shorebirds along a sand bar, shrinking by the minute as the tide rolled in. After lunch, there was no shoreline left and the tide was strong enough for us to float up river as we meandered our way to where our ride was waiting about a mile upstream. What a surreal experience!

Nicola Follis:

Nicola holding a Sharp-shinned Hawk on Chelan Ridge. Photo by Dianna Green

Growing up in Bellingham, Washington I had the amazing opportunity to attend Mountain School and the North Cascades Institute with my high school AP biology class. Walking down from the Sourdough Mountain waterfall I marveled at the possibility of pursuing environmental education as a career. The idea kept nagging at me throughout my undergraduate degree, in heavily research-based marine biology. My heart knew my calling even before my brain wanted to let me pursue this love-affair with the Earth and environmental education. Landing a wonderful marine biology instructor job on Catalina Island, California, my stoke for environmental education was kindled. I have so much passion for the Earth that I want to provide experiences in which students can foster their own unique and healthy relationships with place. My desire to grow as an instructor and develop a deeper understanding of human connection to each other and nature brought me back home to Washington to study at the North Cascades Institute.

In the few short months in the North Cascades I have learned about the natural and cultural history of the region. I feel more connected to a place that I have always called home because I have intentionally documented the change in seasons and felt the tide drift my canoe up the Skagit River. Another highlight was watching a black bear munch on Mountain Ash after an early morning start up the switchbacks to glaciated Cascade Pass after a nine-day backpacking trip in the North Cascades.

We are deep in the midst of the Natural History Course and just got back to the westside after ten days in the Methow Valley. I feel tremendous gratitude for the opportunity to release a female sharp-shinned hawk that was being tagged by ornithologists on Chelan Ridge. Feeling my heart beat in my chest and her heart beat in my hand, will continue to remind me of the immeasurable amount of connection that can be fostered if only we can teach ourselves to become aware.

Adam Brayton:

Adam, “American Gothic”, harvesting kale at the Blue House property in Marblemount. Photo by Gina Roberti

I’m Adam, I’m from Santa Cruz, California, and I’ll just begin with some pertinent details about my childhood that everyone should know:


  • When I was 9, I was Leif Eriksson for Halloween.
  • I called a “guitar” a “ditar” for longer than was probably appropriate for my age.
  • Childhood Adam would go to sleep very early and wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning to watch Animal Planet programming until I had to get ready for school. John Acorn, the “Nature Nut,” was and is an idol.
  • I was that kid that would trap people underground in my theme park with the computer game, Rollercoaster Tycoon.
  • When I was in the 5th grade I did a science fair project on snails called “Where the Escargot Go,” in which I tested the olfactory preferences of garden snails.
  • I swam competitively, and prefer not to think of the number of times I went up and down a pool lane, and up and down again.

In a more broad scope, I tended toward in-doorsy for a lot of my childhood and adolescence, with the notable exceptions of when I got into riding bicycles, when I ran cross country, and the one camping trip that I refer to as “The Lassen Fiasco.” I consider myself fortunate to have had fantastic high school teachers that engendered in me a lifelong love of learning, a love that eventually led me away from Santa Cruz. It wasn’t until I left for Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington that the outdoors was fully opened for me. I participated in a pre-orientation “Scramble” trip in which we rafted down the Salmon River in Idaho for a week. Each night we camped out on white sand beaches and gazed up at a crisp Milky Way, each day we paddled down a river with Class 3 and 4 rapids. We even saw a bear. On the surface it was a fun trip; unconsciously it changed my life.

I went to Whitman with the intent of studying Rhetoric and Film Studies. But after my roommate Nick told me, “Hey Adam, you should register for Intro to Environmental Studies,” I also studied Environmental Humanities. I led Scrambles of my own just up the road from here at Ross Lake, backpacking and canoeing with incoming first-years. I graduated in 2013, and despite writing two theses I’d say my crowning achievement was being one of eight lucky participants in the annual All-Male Charity Parody Beauty Pageant, Mr. Whitman. I didn’t win, but it was pretty fun I guess.

And so began the five-year journey that has led me here. I was a CrossFit trainer, swim teacher, and winery tasting associate in Walla Walla before I jumped ship and moved to Ireland on a working holiday visa. I travelled primarily by bicycle and took up work washing a lot of dishes. After my year was up I continued riding my bicycle throughout Europe, spending much of the next year touring from the Iberian Peninsula to the Caucasus. When I got back, I was broke and doing temp work with UPS and Goodwill, when one of my best friends from college suggested I look into working with her at The Outdoor School in Texas. And so I did, and thus began a seasonal cycle of working in outdoor education during the school year, adventure tourism in the summer, and UPS in the winter. Along the way I took some time in Guatemala to drastically improve my Spanish and also to volunteer with Quetzaltrekkers, the hiking-oriented fundraising arm of Escuela de la Calle in Xela. After two years of this, I determined that I wanted to improve the academic foundations for all the work and play I’d been engaged in. And so I fell in with this motley crew of M.Ed. students in Cohort 18, back in the Pacific Northwest.

Ali Burdick:

Ali enjoying some Washington sun in the beautiful Methow Valley. Photo by Thumper Ormerod

As someone who was California born, Florida raised, and sunburn prone, I knew I wanted to leave the Sunshine State in search of something completely different. I missed the mountains I saw off in the distance as a kid in Southern California, but I also wanted something new, something green, something slightly chillier. After graduating from FSU with a degree in Early Childhood Education, I decided to pursue another degree that would allow me to shape my teaching pedagogy from a more natural lens. And so, I searched and searched for a program that emphasized both the sciences and education, without cutting either out of the picture. This was much harder than I thought it would be, but after a lot of research, stumbled upon NCI’s residency program, and I was immediately sold. Within about five months time, I applied, accepted my admission, packed up my life in Florida, and convinced a few very important people in my life to follow me. I drove 3,000 miles across the country to get here, all of my possessions stuffed into the back of my car, and my beloved pup Christopher in the passenger seat.

Now that I’m here, I can’t imagine still being in Florida, although a small piece of me still loves that place and, of course, all the people in it. I am constantly mind-blown by the snowy peaks, the changes in season, the wildlife. And swimming in bodies of water without worrying about alligators and snakes that could eat you! Who would’ve thought? My favorite experience in Washington by far has been hiking Heather/Maple Pass. The day was spent botanizing and learning about wildlife with our cohort, and my breath was constantly being taken away. Not only from the elevation, that my lil’ Florida lungs were simply not used to yet, but from the incredible space that I was lucky enough to occupy that day. I may have even cried very happy tears at the peak, from the views alone.

I’m incredibly grateful to be in this program, to be part of this community, and to learn from such an amazing group of peers and educators! I am especially exciting to be able to work as the Land Steward Graduate Assistant this year, and to learn more about food-shed education and sustainable gardening. If you need me, you’ll most likely find me in my brand new overalls, on the riding mower at the Confluence Garden.

That’s all for now! Be sure to check out part 1 and part 3!

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