A new internship program is helping underrepresented students find their place in the conservation movement

Successful conservation requires diverse voices and viewpoints, but historically some groups have lacked the resources, access, or opportunities to enter the field. Now, by opening doors for the next generation of conservationists, WWF-US’s BRIDGE internship program is making strides to change that.

The diversity-focused BRIDGE summer internship—short for Building Relationships, Inclusivity, Diversity, Growth, and Excellence—launched in 2021 with a key goal: Introduce students from inadequately represented populations to the conservation field’s countless career paths. “There are many barriers to getting into the conservation space, so just getting exposure to this work is important,” says Charles Sumpter, senior director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at WWF-US.

Weiqian Gao, a 2022 BRIDGE graduate student intern, knows the need for diversification firsthand. “When I go to a conference or workshop, I’m [usually] the only international person, and sometimes I’m the only woman,” says Gao, who’s working toward her PhD in ecology and conservation biology at Texas A&M University. “With BRIDGE, I met so many other women who share the same interest and passion for conservation. I was no longer the only one in the room.”

In fact, she was far from it. Of BRIDGE’s 39 interns in 2022, 95% fit within at least one of the program’s target populations: women, people of color, veterans, and people with disabilities. After completing the program, BRIDGE interns enter WWF-US’s pipeline for future hires, says Sumpter. This in turn helps the organization work toward its goal of at least 30% people of color among full-time employees. (It reached 29% as of 2022.)

Collage portrait of Gao NIKKI ERNST/WWF-US

“With BRIDGE, I met so many other women who share the same interest and passion for conservation. I was no longer the only one in the room.”


But these gains are about more than meeting metrics. As climate change intensifies, the world needs conservationists with diverse backgrounds to tackle the critical threats facing the planet. “It’s important that the people working on solutions look like the people those solutions are going to help,” says Sumpter.

Research proves why. In the US and around the globe, racial and ethnic minority communities are more likely to suffer from the effects of climate change, such as air pollution, droughts, excessive heat, and flooding. These threats pose serious risks to people’s health and livelihoods—and they’re only getting worse.

Gaping inequities in how climate change affects marginalized communities inspired Francesca Edralin, a summer 2021 BRIDGE intern turned full-time WWF employee, to pursue a conservation career in the first place.

“Growing up, while visiting family in the Philippines, I noticed a big disparity with the climate crisis,” says Edralin, a first-generation Filipino American. During these trips, Edralin spoke with locals about the impacts they faced: severe drought, rising sea levels, and increased typhoon risks. “After returning to the US, though, I felt like a lot of people were in a bubble. It made me care about climate justice and spreading awareness, especially through an international lens.”

What’s more, barriers like limited access, economic insecurity, and gender biases tend to disproportionately keep people of color, Indigenous people, and women from entering the field of conservation. In 2021, a University of Vienna study analyzing the world’s top ecology, evolution, and conservation journals—the very journals that set climate priorities and agendas—found that only 11% of the journals’ more than 1,000 published authors were women, and 75% were from just five countries: the US, UK, Australia, Germany, and Canada.

Inclusivity and representation are essential to effective conservation action, and the need goes beyond roles in science and research. WWF designed BRIDGE to help students with various skill sets find their niche.

Interns work full-time, for two months, in one of more than a dozen WWF departments. Edralin interned in the organization’s marketing and communications department. Gao joined the science team. Others participate in everything from policy and climate to private-sector engagement and human resources. “We have opportunities that fit most school majors,” says Jessica Leung, WWF program manager for early talent diversity.

Collage portrait of Edralin NIKKI ERNST/WWF-US

“Growing up, while visiting family in the Philippines, I noticed a big disparity with the climate crisis .... It made me care about climate justice and spreading awareness, especially through an international lens.”


And while exposure to conservation careers can open the door for students from various populations, many need fair compensation to take that first step. “Lack of pay can be a barrier to attracting one or more of our target groups,” says Leung. That’s why BRIDGE is a paid internship; in 2022, undergraduate interns earned $16 per hour and graduate interns earned $20 per hour. This pay structure, made possible by donor funding, benefits aspiring conservationists like Peter Avila, an international relations student at Emmanuel College in Boston.

“You want to do something you love, but you also need to make money,” says Avila, 22, a summer 2022 BRIDGE intern for WWF-US’s development team. Avila grew up in Brazil and moved to the US during high school. In the spring of 2023, he’ll be the first in his family to graduate from college. “With BRIDGE, I could work fully for WWF without having to find an extra job to pay for my studies.”

As BRIDGE welcomes its third cohort this summer, Leung has one overarching goal: to keep the program running well beyond 2023. “Funding ensures the program can provide the breadth of opportunities we have to offer, and it helps us anticipate and adjust based on what’s needed in the conservation workforce,” she says.

At the end of the day, Leung notes, BRIDGE is about furthering WWF’s mission. The question is, she says, “How can we create an experience that impacts the larger field, both in conservation and in society?”

The Mission

Through the BRIDGE internship program, WWF aims to help underrepresented populations find a place in conservation by

  • increasing exposure and connecting students from underrepresented populations to careers in conservation and sustainability
  • fostering professional development, from mentorship to career resources, to help interns secure future conservation jobs
  • reducing barriers to attracting a diverse pool of internship candidates through fair pay and virtual work options
  • shaping WWF’s future with a pipeline of diverse talent from underrepresented populations, particularly women, people of color, veterans, and people with disabilities

WWF is creating an endowment that will guarantee long-term support for BRIDGE interns by providing more than 40 undergraduate and graduate students annually with a fully paid 10-week internship. Income from the endowment will cover interns’ salaries and other essential costs. If you are interested in learning how you can invest in our planet’s future by contributing to the fund, please contact us at [email protected].

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