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The Eccentric Experience of Envirothon’s North American Championship

Posted: September 5, 2019

Michelle Han is a rising senior at the University of Toronto Schools (UTS), Forests Ontario summer intern, and Envirothon participant for the past four years. Michelle’s Envirothon team, victors of the Ontario competition, placed as the top Canadian team this year at the North American competion, and earned two individual placements in the top six internationally.

UTS team members Rhianne Whittaker, Christine Shao, Cate Balasubramanian, Coordinator Elizabeth Straszynski, Michelle Han, and Cole Franklin representing Ontario at the NCF Envirothon in Raleigh, North Carolina

Thirty minutes before our flight, Christina, Cole, Cate, Rhianne, and I went through with our classic Envirothon tradition of cramming all our study materials into a single check-in suitcase overflowing with bug spray. Representing Ontario in our endlessly itchy UTS uniforms, we took a pit stop at Starbucks to load up on sugary drinks to “help” with our uncomfortable mix of nerves and excitement before our flight to Raleigh, North Carolina.

From July 28th to August 3rd, our UTS team, supported by Forests Ontario and Maple Leaves Forever, made our mark on a frenzied week of environmental science competition. Along with 54 other province, state, and bi-national winners from North America and Asia, we would be travelling around Raleigh, Durham, and Atlantic Beach for the week. Each year, the NCF Envirothon is structured into a couple days of fun and a couple days of study. With 10-hour sessions of baking-in-the sun training, testing, and oral presentation delivery, the “study” component definitely took a toll on our team. And while the guest speakers ranging from university professors to entrepreneurs were certainly interesting (shout-out to Dr. Matthew Vann for fielding our overflow of questions on flooding!), the best part of Envirothon is, and always has been, the eccentric social experience. People come together from every corner to spend an entire week agreeing on a common interest. Even more surprisingly, we sincerely enjoy spending time with one another.

Every NCF Envirothon has always started and ended with the organizers’ quirky interpretation of a “normal” social mixer, from keychain trading sessions where we showed off our provincial pride all the way to 1920 cowboy dances in the NC State parking lot. The competition also sets aside a full day for exploring the local area. This year we piled onto multiple sets of school buses at the break of dawn to explore an aquarium, coastal beach, and historical Fort Macon site. Through these multiple mixer events, our team and I got the chance to participate in the most unusual activities reflective of the true political, cultural, and social diversity present. We learned South Carolina slang, met Mennonite teams, talked to students who worked as trappers and hunters, and met a semi-city girl from Wisconsin headed to my dream university.

While our differences would have probably divided us at any normal school or travel experience, Envirothon managed to unite over 200 stressed kids with a common passion. Furthermore, the event encouraged everyone involved to embrace these differences as an opportunity to experience a unique sense of fun and connection. It felt refreshing and exciting to have conversations where I learned about ideas, spaces, and places I would have never even considered otherwise. Having travelled exclusively around mostly urban or tourist cities my whole life, NCF Envirothon has given me the opportunity to explore different lifestyles and traditions found in regions like Raleigh and Pocatello.

To end off, I can say with much appreciation that the rest of the team and I loved being a part of another round of North Americans. With three out of five team members having never been involved in this extracurricular before, Rhianne and I were happy to introduce them to the confusingly wonderful space of Envirothon competition. Here’s hoping for Nebraska next year. 🙂