Ria Brejaart, M.S.
Academic Director & Lecturer
EcoQuest Education Foundation
Aotearoa New Zealand
Ngā mihinui ki a koutou
I think it an interesting challenge to write about where I am now in my career, and where I started, because starting implies there will be an end-point, and that is impossible to contemplate.
Life in all its complexities, including work /career is a journey of becoming. However, in the spirit in which you are asking about my journey – the drivers for where I find myself today (or any day) have always been my love for life and this one planet, my passion and compassion.
My passion: I always gravitated toward the natural world rather than the built environments.
Despite (or perhaps because of) having been born below sea level in one of Europe’s densely populated river deltas [the Netherlands], mountains became my great passion. I was lucky to be able to spend time in many parts of Europe as a child-teenager, including the European Alps (and later I had the opportunity to be in the Himalayas). Each alpine flower, 13-hour day of hauling up a mountain, unidentified rock, breath of cold mountain air; each holiday exploring forests, hiking through tundra, biking the ancient river valleys, and each plant and bird I learnt about in our backyard was a starting point. Each time I realised how much I did not fit in the city where I grew up, was a starting point. Each time I was encouraged to think more widely and to step out, was a starting point.
An unexpected twist of fate saw me end up in Aotearoa New Zealand, where I studied at Lincoln University. Initially I became a park ranger, and then I went to grad school to be able to do research on kea, our alpine parrot. I worked/carried out research in the Southern Alps for many years. Each day of those years brought starting points and new opportunities to learn. You can’t learn about wildlife without learning about people and resource management.
My compassion led me to engage with environmental education, education for sustainability and alternative (non-mainstream) education.
The combination of being an ecologist and educator meant nearly 25 years ago I found a perfect niche: as a co-founder of EcoQuest I experienced the rare and exciting synergy of common purpose with like-minded people. Each of us brought unique perspectives and skills to the setting up of EcoQuest, but all of us were driven by the pursuit of working for sustainable futures through education and research. The challenges of setting up a school from scratch brought starting points and milestones (as well as many roadblocks and small victories) each day.
I am first and foremost an ecologist, in that I relish the discoveries and complexities of relationships. Relationships among organisms, system drivers and species assemblages, relationships between people and the natural world, and overarching all – between people and place.
As the academic director and one of the lecturers at EcoQuest, I have the great joy each semester of working with an amazing team of colleagues and students – we work at enhancing our understanding and knowledge of species and ecosystems in Aotearoa, and we contribute to the mahi – the work – that needs doing for a sustainable future.
Working in international education helps build bridges, collaborations and networks. Working as part of a sustainable learning community keeps me grounded, focused and enables me to contribute and give back to the people and places that nurture us.
But I am also a partner, a mother, a daughter, a sister a friend, … each person in my life gives me joy and starting points, connections and diversions: celebrations of achievements in science, education or business wouldn’t exist without celebrating all those relationships.
I was lucky to have adventurous parents, their commitment to a sustainable world present in all their decisions; I had more grandparents than most people, all fiercely independent, loving and politically engaged, the mentors I had who believed in me and the people who gave me break – I wish they could share more of my journey, and maybe above all my partner and son without whom I might not have (had) the stamina to pursue this life of learning in all its rich dimensions.
Was that journey straightforward?
No. I meandered all over the place.
I wanted to be a veterinarian, I loved (and still love) squirrels and gardening, I loved languages and thought I would be a translator in at least seven languages; I immersed myself for while art and bio-dynamic horticulture, I travelled, to eventually fall in love all over again with ecology – at the other end of the world from where I was born.
Did I stumble and screw up? – absolutely.
Was I guided and helped along? – absolutely.
Did I work many different jobs and crazy hours? – absolutely.
Could any of it have happened without fiercely loving life? – absolutely not.
The things I was given, and that I can see with the benefit of hindsight led me to where I am – and that I wish for our students:
To believe in yourselves, to follow your passion, to be gentle to others and yourselves. To ask for help when you need it, to fan the flames of curiosity and wonder, to learn how make relationships with place (and people?), to challenge all assumptions in a bid for clarity and direction. If you find yourself somewhere on your life or career path that you had not intended: celebrate the difference and recalibrate; when one door closes, another door or window will open. Try and understand all the worldviews of people who surround you. Have an open heart and an open mind, you never know who or what comes along. Be present for the here and now. Enjoy the journey. And love – fiercely.
Nāku i runga i aku mihi ki a koe, Ria Brejaart
Academic Director, EcoQuest Education Foundation | Te Rarangahau Taiao