Dr. Jeffrey Corney has developed and taught ecology, environmental science and outdoor education programs for K-12, college, and community audiences for the past 24 years. Dr. Corney is the Executive Director of The Wilderness Center located in Wilmont, Ohio. He previously served as Managing Director of the University of Minnesota’s Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Prior to arriving in Minnesota, Corney served for four years as an assistant professor of environmental science, and as the first full-time director of the Claytor Nature Study Center of Lynchburg College, a 470-acre field station and nature center located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
- In 2 sentences, explain your work with the HWHF?
HWHF has graciously helped us build a broadband fiber-optic infrastructure and outdoor wireless platform for enhanced educational experiences through access to natural history and science education material that we can now create, post and allow our students and visitors to access in and around our main facilities and trailheads.
- Describe what your organization does best
The mission of The Wilderness Center is to connect our community with nature, educate people of all ages, conserve natural resources, and practice environmental stewardship.
- What’s the best part of your day?
I’m at my best when I’m presenting natural science material to an audience, and when I’m working with staff to come up with creative solutions to issues.
- What are you currently working on?
We’ve been fortunate enough to receive another fairly large grant award that will allow us to renovate and improve our Interpretive Building’s conference/classroom capacity, educational display areas, digital projection planetarium, and expand our trail system.
- When did you know you wanted to be a Nature Center Director?
I started my career in education, first as an outdoor adventure instructor and later as a college professor. As part of one of my first professorships I was also hired to be the founding director of a new nature center property that was recently bequeathed to the college. The challenges of building that fledgling nature center were daunting, but I enjoyed it and found I had a bit of a knack for it. That was 15 years ago, and I’ve pursued this career path ever since, with The Wilderness Center marking my third directorship (“third time’s the charm”).
- What piece of advice would you give someone looking to break into this field?
Directing a nature center requires a rather broad set of skills and experiences, as you typically will be working for a non-profit organization with limited financial resources and a relatively small staff. So, you often find yourself directly involved in every aspect of running the center: from building and grounds to fund raising to educational programming to human resources management to finance to marketing and public relations. A solid academic background in both the sciences and the humanities proves useful, as you need to be both technically proficient and socially adept when handling pretty much every situation.
- What do you read for fun?
When not reading scientific books and articles, I enjoy good science fiction and non-fiction books about history.
- Are you a Windows or Apple person?
Windows; but I secretly wish Apple had been able to capture more of the market share, as I think they have a much more stable system.
- What’s one thing you can’t work without?
Oh the irony, I work for a nature center but I’m “dead in the water” if my computer and/or internet are down!
- Who do you admire and why?
As of late, I’ve been reading about Abraham Lincoln and his “team of rivals.” I’d have to say that Lincoln is in my top tier of leaders that I admire in large part because of what was an extraordinary ability to put aside his own ego and discomforts and bring together the best minds he could to help solve what was then some of the most difficult and contentious problems any leader has had to help solve.
- What’s the most interesting place you have ever been (for work)?
There have been many, especially when I was working as an outdoor educator. If I have to pick I’d say the most interesting place and experience was during an expedition training Ugandan park rangers in the Rwenzori Mountains of western Uganda. The landscape was a stunning and beautiful combination of pastoral hillside farms and small villages tucked into lush little valleys. The high country (headwaters of the Nile) was a strange “fairyland” of dense equatorial rainforest trees thick with vines, dripping mosses and quagmire meadows juxtaposed with dark rocky peaks coated in snow and ice.
- What’s the most interesting thing you have ever done?
Again, I’ve had some really cool outdoor experiences. The one that comes to mind is a two-week adventure a buddy and I took hitch-hiking across southern Africa from Malawi to Zimbabwe to South Africa to Botswana and finishing in the Namib Desert region of Namibia. The landscapes we saw and camped in, the people we met along the way who often welcomed us into their homes, the food we ate from so many different cultures, and the abundant wildlife we encountered were incredible. The whole experience felt like we were living in a National Geographic special.
- What’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled for your work?
I spent a year in Kenya as an outdoor field instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School.
- What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of being the father of three wonderful kids. But, in my career I’d have to say it’s leaving the centers I’ve directed in much better shape than when I arrived.
- What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
I hope to help raise my children to be the best they can be and guide them toward finding their own happiness in life. And, for my career I hope to continue my pattern of raising the capacity and quality of the nature center I’m entrusted with as director.
- What’s your favorite activity outside of work?
Hiking and backpacking in the mountains…any mountains!
- If you were on an island and could only bring three things – what would they be?
A knife with sawblade, a flint and steel firestarter, and a stainless-steel sealable container (for water storage and cooking). Yes, I’m going to survive this!
- How do you define success and how do you measure it?
Personally, when I wake up in the morning and actually look forward to getting to work, because I genuinely enjoy what I’m doing for a living. Professionally, when I walk around the nature center or on the trails and I watch our visitors learning and enjoying what we have to offer and I can say to myself, “Yes! Look what we did.”
- Who were the most important people to help you create success in your life and what did they do for/with you?
My parents and grandparents collectively taught me by example the values of approaching life with an eye for the positive, working hard toward creating your own circumstances and fulfilling your own goals, and being loyal and taking care of those around you.
- If you could do something as a career other than what you are doing now (no limits) what would it be?
Well, I really do like the career I have now. But, if I could dream with “no limits” than I’m going to choose a career that doesn’t quite exist yet, but if it did I’d sign up in a heartbeat. I would love to be among the first astronaut scientists to explore Mars.
- What are your top 3 favorite movies of all time?
Lord of the Rings trilogy, Out of Africa, and Casablanca.
- What are you doing now that will make a positive difference for future generations?
I like to think that through education and outdoor experiences I am helping fellow citizens, both young and old, understand our shared environment just a little bit better. And, in so doing, I like to think I’m helping people to make more informed and prudent decisions regarding our environment.
- What question did we not ask but should ask the next person?
What was the biggest set-back in your career? And, what did you learn from it? Mine was when I first applied for graduate school and found out I was not accepted into the program I really wanted (they could only take six that year and I was runner-up at seventh, and no one declined). The first lesson I learned was humility, that despite just how good you think you are there’s always either someone better qualified or circumstance better suited for someone other than you. The second lesson took a little longer but ended up guiding me throughout the rest of my career, all the way to finally indeed getting into graduate school. The lesson learned was to take what appears negative and look for the positive in any situation. In this case, the failure gave me pause long enough to reflect and realize that I really didn’t want to embark on that career path at that time. Instead, I wanted to embark on adventures to see more of the world and gain practical experiences that would serve me well later in life. And, so I did: “And that has made all the difference” (yes, Robert Frost).