Environmental education isn’t always elementary

How former MLEIP intern turned TCEQ staffer Alison Wenzel developed her love for the environment into a full-time career

Growing up in Texas, Alison Wenzel learned to love the environment from a young age from her parents. Because her mom was an environmental educator and her dad is a lifelong outdoorsman, they often went camping, hiking, and fishing as a family.

With the goal of becoming an environmental scientist, Alison initially earned a double major in environmental science and geology with a minor in environmental anthropology from Southern Methodist University.

But an internship at the City of Denton changed her career trajectory from field work to education.

“In my last semester of college, I was a recycling education intern and I just fell in in love with education. My mom was an educator and I always told myself I’d take a different career path, but the first time I did that job it was so exciting for me to be able to take all the information I learned and communicate it in a new way,” Alison said.

Following that internship, and with the knowledge that she loved teaching, she applied and got into the University of Texas in Arlington’s Master of Education Curriculum and Instruction Science Education Online Program.

Alison found out about the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s Mickey Leland Environmental Internship Program when she was helping her sister, Amanda Wenzel, find an internship. When she realized the program accepted graduate students, she and her sister both applied. Alison got into the MLEIP 2020 program, and, although her sister did not (Amanda accepted an internship with Texas Parks & Wildlife last summer), they both ended up working at TCEQ this year.

Alison interned with TCEQ’s Take Care of Texas program last summer in an environmental education and outreach position.

As an intern, she worked on projects that had a real impact on Texas. One of those included collaborating with the graphics team to update the Air Quality Index graphics and lesson plans so that air quality was easily understood by elementary school-aged students.

“What I learned most from the program that I hadn’t really known before was just how large-scale state organizations work,” Alison said. “I learned a lot about intergovernmental work and about how interconnected governmental agencies are, between working with scientists and web developers and the graphics team it was unlike anything I had ever been a part of before. I loved having all of these different resources at my fingertips and I loved that any time I had a question environmental-related, someone at TCEQ could answer it.”

She also learned a lot about TCEQ and the history of the internship program, including details about its namesake Mickey Leland, through webinars held throughout the summer.

“We got to have a seminar with Alison Leland, Mickey Leland’s widow, and she was so engaging in talking about his life and his experience. I loved that they had you learn about his history because it really gave me pride in taking part in a program with his name on it because he was a very inspirational politician,” Alison said.

Now that she has joined the Take Care of Texas team fulltime, she continues to work on projects that make an impact in environmental education. This year, she worked with TCEQ’s Deputy Executive Director L’Oreal Stepney on a series of videos highlighting diversity among TCEQ staff that was featured on TCEQ’s webpage during Black History Month.

Her favorite part of working at TCEQ so far has been meeting a variety of employees, not just on her team, but also in other program areas and throughout the state who love what they do for a living.

“Working with people who are passionate about what they do just makes it so much easier from an educational and outreach perspective to communicate about what TCEQ does. People are proud of the work they do and it’s exciting for us to showcase them,” Alison said.

She recommends students apply to the internship program regardless of major, since environmental agencies such as TCEQ have all kinds of positions to fill—from human resources to legal and accounting.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind program. You’re getting paid, which shows your work is being valued. To me, that really helped me have an investment in it. It’s worth your time. It’s worth your effort and it really makes you proud of the work you’re doing,” Alison said.

And, in case you think environmental education is just teaching kids, Alison says that isn’t so. Not only does she help create graphics for social media to teach all Texans about how to reuse, reduce and recycle, she’s even gotten her grandmother on board.

“If my grandparents can learn to recycle in their 80s, anyone can learn!” she said.