ORISE and Shine: A New Opportunity

By Conner Beckwith (ORISE, USAEC)October 12, 2023

Conner Beckwith participates in the annual USAEC Nature Day April 20, 2023, with kindergartners from JBSA Fort Sam Houston elementary school.
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Conner Beckwith participates in the annual USAEC Nature Day April 20, 2023, with kindergartners from JBSA Fort Sam Houston elementary school. This annual event helps students learn about the importance of the environment, cultural resources, recycling, and history through fun hands-on activities. (Photo Credit: Photo by Lally Laksbergs, USAEC public affairs) VIEW ORIGINAL
Chris Beckwith [left], and son Conner, celebrate graduation at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, May 13, 2022.
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Chris Beckwith [left], and son Conner, celebrate graduation at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, May 13, 2022. (Photo Credit: Courtesy Photo from Conner Beckwith) VIEW ORIGINAL

My adventure took shape when I stumbled upon USAJobs seeing a Public Affairs job opportunity with the U.S. Army Environmental Command through the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). Freshly graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in biology, I embarked on a journey of exploration and self-discovery, unaware of the remarkable path ahead.

The ORISE program places individuals from the academic community (students, recent graduates, and faculty members) in research projects under the Department of Defense. This program is one way to ensure a steady influx of scientists and engineers to meet the DoD’s future STEM needs. This collaborative approach leverages a young STEM professional with new, unique perspectives and ideas with the U.S. Army and offers valuable experiences for participants.

Although initially hesitant about venturing into public affairs within an environmental command, my father’s experience in Air Force public affairs inspired me to take a leap of faith and see where this would take me.

Little did I know this would become the best learning experience I could have asked for - where I can strengthen my environmental passion as well as find an unexpected new interest.

What sets ORISE apart for me is its emphasis on fostering an environment of continuous learning. Unlike most traditional internships, where rigid structures limit one's exposure, ORISE and USAEC encouraged me to embrace the many facets of the field. The experience is designed to provide a fluid understanding of the Environmental Command, with an emphasis on the niche domain of environmental public affairs.

In ORISE, each participant is assigned a mentor in their new position. My mentor, Lally Laksbergs, an environmental public affairs specialist with 17 years of DoD public affairs experience, through unwavering support and guidance, helps me navigate the complexities of not only the Army and DoD, but the Environmental Command, enriching my understanding of environmental public affairs beyond my expectations. In this role, she challenges me and guides me throughout the year, pushing me beyond my limits while ensuring I understand how to implement this learning in the future. Through her mentorship I have gained confidence and competence in the command, prompting me to write my first article [that you, are reading now.]

Throughout the course of this past year in the program, I’ve had the privilege of working with dedicated professionals who were not only experts in their respective fields, but also always open to help me learn and understand.

This experience is not confined to a desk. Rather, it’s sometimes an immersive and hands-on adventure. Initially assigned to amplify the command's presence on social media and recruitment, I find myself delving into diverse areas such as graphic design, photography, and journalism. This expansion of responsibilities allows me to develop new skills while contributing to meaningful projects.

A significant turning point was realizing that research for educational campaigns and interviews with subject matter experts not only amplifies the command's voice but also enriches my understanding of environmental science. I now recognize the critical importance of communication and scientific understanding in the environmental world; a valuable lesson I believe I couldn't have gained from any other experience. For example, I’ve been able to interview the command’s highly regarded entomologist, Dr. Bill Miller. From the interview alone I was able to understand the importance of our Integrated Pest Management Program and the intricacies of communicating pest management across the world, something that would have taken me who knows how long to learn from a written report versus an hour-long conversation.

Another gratifying experience was having the opportunity to travel to Fort Leonard Wood where I was able to participate in and take photos of the Environmental Performance Assessment System team to expand my environmental knowledge and gain a better understanding of our mission, blending both passions into one. Driving across the installation, I learned a lot just conversing about the environmental efforts that FLW is implementing and collaborating on possible ways to expand these efforts. From walking through drinking water facilities to exploring trails, forests, and caves to ensure natural resource management and preservation was nothing short of eye-opening. I was even able to meet previous ORISE participants that were able to build their careers from this opportunity. Thanks to ORISE and USAEC, I was able to witness everything firsthand.

As I conclude my first year with ORISE, the most gratifying aspects of my journey has been discovering an interest in public affairs and reigniting my passion for environmental science. This niche field offers unique challenges and opportunities, sparking a newfound sense of purpose within me. I realized the profound impact of environmental public affairs on shaping public perception and driving change towards a sustainable future. USAEC is not only equipping me with the essential tools for success in my field, but also is presenting opportunities to broaden my horizons. AEC is providing the flexibility to explore various paths and the choice to either continue building my career within the organization or venture elsewhere. This is an environment where even an ORISE Participant like myself, feels profoundly valued.

To anyone considering an ORISE opportunity, I would wholeheartedly recommend seizing this chance to explore your potential, learn from professionals, and embrace growth in an environment that values innovation and curiosity. Plus, you get paid to do it... who wouldn’t want to jump at an experience like this! ORISE has been the catalyst for my personal and professional transformation, and I am eager to embrace the exciting future it has paved for me in the world of environmental public affairs.

Once again, I extend a special thank you to my mentor, Lally Laksbergs, USAEC Commander Col. Matthew Kelly, and the U.S. Army Environmental Command for this extraordinary opportunity that has sculpted my professional journey.