65 Years | 65 Faces of IES Abroad – Robin Martin McKenna

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Robin Martin McKenna

Executive Vice President, National Parks Conservation Association
London, Spring 1999

Having lived in Honduras for part of her childhood, Robin Martin McKenna grew up as a traveler and knew she wanted to study abroad in college. Despite coursework unrelated to her Environmental Science major, Robin was deeply impacted by her experience in London. She not only met her husband while on the program, but an internship with the Green Party led her to realize she wanted focus her future career working for a conservation advocacy organization. Today, Robin serves as the Executive Vice President of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a nonprofit whose mission is to protect and enhance America’s National Park System for present and future generations. After focusing on international travel for much of her life, Robin now enjoys traveling domestically with her family and has been to over 100 of the 400+ parks in National Park System, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

IES Abroad: As an Environmental Science major, what led you to study abroad in London?

Robin Martin McKenna: My father worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), so growing up we traveled quite a bit and even lived abroad in Honduras for four years. So I had always intended to study abroad and wanted to go somewhere I hadn't been before. My study abroad experience actually had nothing to do with my interest in conservation and environmental issues. I probably should've gone to Costa Rica to study the rainforest or the British West Indies to study marine biology. But instead I chose London, a city full of history, culture, and architecture with easy access to the rest of Europe. It was the perfect place for me to study abroad.

IES Abroad: What are a few of your most impactful study abroad memories?

RMM: My entire four months in London were impactful. First of all, I was in a house with 10 incredible people who all came from very different places. There were three guys and eight girls. Three of my roommates and I still see each other regularly, I consider them to be some of my closest friends, and four others I stay in touch with. They are all lifelong friends, and I can't wait for the day when we all head back to London for a reunion!  

The biggest impact is that I fell in love with one of my roommates, Doug McKenna. We started dating about a month and a half into the program, so it was pretty cool to be able to have the incredible abroad experience together. We married in 2007 and now have two wonderful boys. Ryan is five and Jake will be two this fall. My study abroad clearly had a huge impact on my future. 

IES Abroad: How did you change the most during your time in London? Did the experience shape the way you think in a profound way today?

RMM: I think studying abroad really gives an individual the opportunity to learn more about themselves...the things they like, the kinds of people they want to surround themselves with, their personal limitations. I know I became a lot more independent and confident when I was in London. I had to. I was completely on my own, other than the 10 strangers I lived with. It's like starting your life completely over. Meeting new people, going new places, making your own decisions every day, it makes you realize all that you are capable of doing.  

IES Abroad: You joined the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in 2000, and currently serve as Executive Vice President. Were there skills you learned or developed abroad that helped you in the early days of your career?

RMM: I interned with the Green Party during my time in London. While I had been interested in conservation and environmental issues throughout my life, this was the first opportunity I had to engage more politically with a group whose values centered around conservation. This experience made me realize that I wanted to focus my career working for a nonprofit, conservation advocacy organization. And that's exactly what I ended up doing right out of college and have been doing ever since. 

IES Abroad: Although separate from the National Parks Service, the NPCA calls itself “the voice of the national parks.” What are some of the most pressing challenges and opportunities facing the national parks today?

RMM: One of the most pressing issues that our parks face is that they are severely underfunded, getting just a fraction of the money from Congress they need to fully staff rangers, repair roads, maintain trails, and educate visitors, among other things. Drilling and mining for resources, as well as energy development in and around park lands can harm fragile ecosystems, impact wildlife habitats, and contaminate air and water in the communities that surround them. Air pollution is among the most serious threats to our national parks and monuments. Dirty air ruins scenic views, harms wildlife and historic sites, and affects the health of visitors. Water gives life to our national parks, shaping land and sustaining plants and animals. Yet, waters inside parks across this nation are also threatened with over fishing, invasive species, impacts from adjacent land development, water quantity and quality, etc. These are just a few of the issues we are working on as we speak up for parks.

There is also great opportunity for our national parks. While incredible natural landscapes such as Grand Canyon and Yellowstone exist in our park system, two-thirds of America’s more than 400 national park sites are dedicated to cultural and historic significance. In recent years, new sites have been added that better represent the diversity of America’s people – and better tell the story of who we are as a nation. For example, we now have a national park site that tells the story of the nation’s first industry-wide strike in 1894 and early Civil Rights history at Pullman National Monument in Chicago. The events that happened there are the reason we celebrate Labor Day today. And just this year, the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C. and Stonewall National Monument in New York were designated. Belmont-Paul has been home to the National Woman’s Party for the last 90 years and the epicenter of the struggle for women’s suffrage and equal rights. Stonewall is the first and only national park site dedicated to interpreting LGBT history. There are still more stories to be told, and there will be more stories made in the future. History does not stop being created. It’s important to tell America’s diverse story through our parks, the places that hold our nation’s heritage, including the good and the bad. 

IES Abroad: This summer the National Parks Service is celebrating its centennial year. How is the NPCA joining in the celebration?

RMM: The National Park Service centennial is such an amazing opportunity for us to celebrate our parks and encourage people to get out and enjoy them. The NPCA has worked with the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality to support their Every Kid in a Park campaign, which has a goal of getting all fourth graders and their families to a park this centennial year. Additionally, NPCA is challenging Congress, the administration, and the American public to re-engage with the parks and ensure their protection for the next century. 

To celebrate 2016, NPS launched an initiative called Find Your Park to encourage people to get out and visit these incredible places – whether across the country or maybe even in their own backyard. To join in the celebration, NPCA launched our Find Your Voice initiative. We want people to be both national park visitors and national park advocates – in this centennial year and beyond. As part of this effort, this year we’re hosting over 100 activities across the country including service projects like park clean-ups, recreational opportunities like hiking and boating, and even sessions to teach people how to be advocates. Through this effort, we hope to inspire people to find their voice for our national parks. I want to invite each of you to visit our website at www.findyourvoice.camp and see what events are near you. We would love to have you join us! 

IES Abroad: Your family loves to travel, especially to the national parks. What are some of your favorite places to visit, and has your experience abroad impacted how your raise your children?

RMM: Gosh, there are so many places in this country and in this world that are so wonderful for different reasons. Until I started working for NPCA, I did not have a good understanding of all the amazing natural places, cultural landmarks, and historical sites there are across this nation. Having grown up traveling internationally, my focus in high school and college was to get out of the country. After working at NPCA for a year and a half, I was given the opportunity to be a staff representative on a donor trip to Yosemite National Park in California. I remember when we arrived in Yosemite Valley it was quite dark. I woke up early the next morning and left my hotel room. I remember being absolutely awestruck by what surrounded me. The bright blue sky, huge white clouds, and granite formations all around me. It was truly magical. Ever since then it's been my mission to get out and see more. 

There are 412 national park units in our National Park System and I have been to over 100 of them. I've ridden a horse down into Haleakala volcano, hiked up Exit Glacier in Kenai-Fjords, watched the synchronous fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains - the only place in the U.S. they can be found – got engaged in Virgin Islands, seen baby alligators in the Everglades, been locked in a jail cell on Alcatraz Island, helped build a fence in Harpers Ferry, and spotted my first mountain lion in Big Bend while a bear ran across the road from me 20 feet away. I think traveling and experiencing different places and people is so important to who a person is. Both of my kids have been going to national parks since they were months old, and well before they were born. They're both still very young and probably won't remember the experiences they've had so far, but I can't wait until they're old enough and we can take a couple months traveling across this beautiful country. 

IES Abroad: What advice do you have for students interested in studying or interning abroad, particularly those interested in environmental sciences and sustainability?

RMM: I would tell anyone to study abroad. Whether what they do when they are abroad is related to their future career or not, it is an experience that everyone should have. I actually didn't take a single environmental or conservation course when I was abroad, but I did do the incredible internship with the Green Party as mentioned before. To be honest, not having to take courses in my major probably took a little of the pressure off and allowed me to really enjoy my time while I was in London and take classes that I normally wouldn't.