Nicholas Spinelli

Graduate Program Alumni Spotlight: Nicholas Spinelli ’20

Meet Nicholas Spinelli, Graduate Program Class of 2020.

Nicholas SpinelliWho are you?

I define identity—like many other things—as becoming, rather than being. So, my answer to this question has changed dramatically even since entering (and exiting) the graduate program. 

If you saw me, what would you see? I’m a man … a white, red-bearded, tattooed, toe-shoe-wearing man (#freeyourfeet). 

If you got to know me, what would you learn? I’m a son, a brother, a student, and an educator. I’m a talker, a runner, a deep thinker, and a connector. I’m also a record collector (still obsessed), a gamer (finally retired), and a chronic planner (in recovery)…

Describe your path to TSS.

As a child, it probably started with me wandering around the foothills of western Pennsylvania with my father and the woods in northeastern Ohio with my mother. Richard Louv was giving voice to what we all already know when he wrote that time spent outside is one of the biggest indicators as to whether or not a child will grow up to be environmentally conscious. And, well … look what happened!

As an adult, I worked as a field science instructor at High Trails Outdoor Science School in southern California; then as a volunteer with Buffalo Field Campaign in southern Montana; then as a naturalist with Cleveland Metroparks; then as an AmeriCorps member with Envirolution, a STEM education nonprofit in northern Nevada. 

Along the way I dabbled in various education- and education-adjacent responsibilities, and found myself, again, wanting more. Not more responsibility (or even more money—though I do like money), but more growth. Life was all well and good but I really, truly wanted to take things to the next level. The impatience of youth was intense. And, in this instance … it didn’t steer me wrong! I found the graduate program by chance online and it was the same story you hear from alum every. single. time. A year in the Tetons? In a log cabin? Learning about teaching kids outside? (And they cook for you?!) My crunchiest white fantasy was realized. The rest is history.

How did the Graduate Program impact your life? What were some key learnings and/or lessons you took from the Graduate Program?

Honestly, it’s hard to say—my life isn’t over yet. (Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking … but really, I hope that speaks to just how much impact I’ve uncovered since exiting the program, and how much more I’ll likely uncover in the years to come.) 

TSS was the ultimate investment in myself. This might sound selfish, but when you think about how, as human beings, we all go out into the world and (in Rumi’s words) have the potential to take part in such enormous events with such tiny little eyes and ears … such self-investment, and self-work, is really what we need if we want to live well. All the material lessons about community-building, and field science, and educational theory (and what the heck a Uinta ground squirrel actually does nine months out of the year) were appreciated, but the real value of the program was in the way TSS encouraged me to think critically, holistically. The world is a complex place. It’s time we become comfortable with leaning into discomfort. That’s life!

What cabin did you live in? Do you have a residential life story from the Kelly Campus that still makes you laugh?

I started in Blacktail Butte, oldest and smallest of the KC cabins. Though I initially found the bats in the roof, holes in the wall and shoebox square-footage to be rustic, even charming—but by mid-October (and our first descent into below-zero temperatures) those charms had worn off. KC “Master of Everything” Todd made valiant efforts to address the first two and actually suggested the recently-vacated Cloudveil Dome as an alternative to the third, and so—I moved! It wasn’t uncommon for me to be woken up around 4:30am by the sound of him in the old plow truck out in front of my cabin. Unbelievably, this helped ease me back to sleep. Four feet of snow in one night? It didn’t matter. We were in good, and dedicated, hands.

Tell us about the people in the Graduate Program: your faculty, your peers, etc.

Graduate program faculty, at the time of my residency, consisted of Aaron, Kevin, Julia, Addie, Ben, Kelsie and Nikki. I was fortunate enough to share meaningful moments with all seven of those, frankly, amazing humans. That was the strength of the program—a team of professionals that really made me feel heard and valued as an individual. 

As for my peers—many of our friendships will undoubtedly be lifelong. Danny and I meditate together on Tuesday nights, despite almost 2000 miles separating us. (Zen is not so easily thwarted.) Kendall and I regularly discuss current events. Siri and I once logged six hours on the phone together. Angus and I are always power-ranking something (Kanye West albums, Studio Ghibli films, etc.) over a never-ending series of texts. Jake and I are plotting our next trip. I still have a letter from Kim hanging on my fridge. And one of these days I’m going to make it down to beautiful La Paz to visit Angie. And that isn’t even the full list! Y’all continue to uplift me and make me a better person in more ways than I can count.

Graduate Program Class of 2020
Graduate Program Class of 2020 braving the Kelly winter!

What have you been up to since the Graduate Program? 

I’ve been living and working in Tucson, Arizona (Tohono O’odham lands) for the last nine months. I’m extremely fortunate to count Institute for Transformative Education CEO Luis Perales as both a supervisor and as a mentor as I wrap up my second stint with AmeriCorps—this time as a VISTA. He hired me without a job description or even a job title! He just grinned instead and said “I have an idea.” (Classic Luis.) That “idea” turned out to be the Tucson Climate Project, which we believe might be the largest regional analysis of the environmental sector in southern Arizona … ever?! We’re compiling our full report now and are hoping to have that published by July. From there, we’re dreaming of launching a consultancy that would facilitate transformative mixed-methods research across sectors. Learning from Luis has been a true joy. In his words: “It’s badass to be alive.” We’ll see what happens!

Until recently, my day hustle with AmeriCorps was complimented by my night hustle with Prescott College, where I’m finishing my MA in Outdoor Education Leadership. I’m stoked to transition into Prescott College’s PhD program in Sustainability Education in August.

How does a connection to place inspire or influence the work you currently do?

This is a contradiction I hold lightly. I’m a guest in North America, I’m not from here. By choosing to remain on this continent, I’m obligated to tread lightly wherever I go—knowing that it’s always someone else’s land I’m on. Thinking about this means challenging many deeply held assumptions in American culture, including (rugged) individualism and the right to own private property. It also means constantly, consistently, and perpetually working to acknowledge and address the wrongs perpetrated against Native Americans and other Indigenous populations here. I can never know their struggle truly—and—I can’t claim disconnection from it, either. (Settler privilege and all that, right?) So the last few years have consisted of a LOT of listening and a lot of ruminating, which I hope will lead to real, meaningful action in the right time, at the right place, with the right people. 

With all that said—my love for place is absolute, and it’s at the root of everything I do. Place-Based Education? More like Place-Based Existence. (And even then, PBE is really just a less radical version of Land-Based Education, which is the term I use, most likely imprecisely, in attempting to describe many of the Indigenous teachings I’ve been fortunate enough to learn about at Prescott College). Access to place is critical, and any self-aware white person would be quick to point out that you often only see faces like theirs in the outdoors. What are we doing to change that? The divide between nature and culture, rural and urban, ‘pristine’ wilderness (which, by the way, doesn’t exist) and despoiled spaces is a false binary … I’m just as in love with the eastern Sierras as I am the white swamp oak trees growing in my parent’s yard in Cleveland, and helping more people to reconnect with where they are (and what sustains them) sustains me, in turn.

What is a goal you’re currently working on?

Listen more, speak less. Use less words.

(…did you laugh? Or at least chuckle?

…no? OK. But my point stands.)

It’s rarely about you. That’s something I think we all struggle to understand. It’s one thing to talk about decentering your ego, or whiteness, or whatever else. It’s another thing to actually live it. It’s not “You don’t have value.” It’s “You have value, but it’s not dependent on being at the center of everything all the time.” I’ve been pretty bad about that, historically. I’m working on it.

Anything else?

Joe Duplantier said (well, screamed) it best in French metal band GOJIRA: “When you change yourself, you change the world.” Damn right, Joe.

A huge THANK YOU to my family as well, as while I’ve been off changing myself … COVID-19 happened. I wouldn’t be who I am and my work wouldn’t be possible without you. I’m sorry I’ve been away for so long. Y’all are my world and Ohio wouldn’t be what it is without you.

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