By: Erica Cuyckens
Erica Cuyckens is an Assistant Investigator in Argentina’s National Commission of Science and Technology (CONICET) and teaches natural sciences to PhD students at the National University of Jujuy in Argentina. As an alumna of the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP), she was accepted to attend our four-day “Creative Leadership for Conservation” course in Salta, Argentina in March 2019. Read about her experience on this course in the following blog. This course was funded by a grant from American Express to the Wildlife Conservation Society.
When I applied to participate in CLP’s “Creative Leadership for Conservation” course, I really didn’t know what to expect. Since CLP was offering it, I was confident that it would be an interesting and valuable experience. I thought that it would be a traditional course where the students sit in rows and write a lot in their notebooks and the teacher stands in front and talks and talks and talks. But nothing was further from the truth. This course was so interactive and dynamic that I never got tired or bored. Also, we almost never wrote anything down because knowledge was directly poured into us through experiences.
For the past two years I have been taking classes in a higher education teaching programme where I learned a lot of new techniques that I try to apply in the classroom. After the CLP course, I am totally convinced that traditional teaching should no longer be used in some cases. I believe more strongly in informal learning processes. I think the teaching techniques I learned on this course are excellent to use in conservation programmes. I no longer go to the community and teach them about some topic. Instead, I aim to make experiences possible through which we all learn.
One of my weaknesses is getting out in front of a group. I am reaching a stage in my life and career where supporting others is becoming important. Young conservationists in Jujuy do not have a lot of options to get guidance. Also, if I want to contribute to conservation beyond just publications, I need to go further. This course helped me to strengthen my self-confidence by learning what kind of leader I am (not all leaders are naturally inspiring) and by knowing myself better. I learned how to not get stuck when something isn’t the way I excepted it to be. I also realised I have to learn how to deal with difficult conversations; not all partners in conservation have to be friends, but yes, a good relationship is needed. The stakeholder mapping activity helped me learn how to see things from someone else’s perspective. I always thought I was good with empathy, but I learned that to work in conservation and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, a lot more is needed.
I believe in horizontal structures, not top-down imposition. On this course I learned how to strengthen myself as a leader without changing this ideology. I also loved the meditation session. I bought a book on meditation and I am now implementing it at home with my partner.
I now think of myself as a pack leader, like a wolf. To me this animal is strong, wise, and leads with a sense of justice, always listening to the needs of others while keeping an eye on the weakest. They fight shoulder to shoulder with pack mates. I have my pack – my students, including my first PhD student. I hope to help the group grow and to provide good guidance for them. I feel more prepared than ever to do this.