• “It takes a village to really raise successful youth.”
By Christina Whiting
Ryjil Christianson has been the Director of Education at the Pratt Museum since 2008. She started as a volunteer, mentored by Lois Bettini, who was the Director of Education at the time.
“Mentorship propelled me into the museum field,” Christianson said of her experience. “I was a volunteer docent for several months, and then was hired as the education assistant. It was through Bettini’s role-modeling and friendship that my interest in museum work as a profession grew. Now I mentor others.”
The Pratt Museum’s robust intern program is one that weaves its way into everyday operations and provides staff the opportunity to mentor local youth.
One area of Christianson’s mentorship is the Nature Arts Summer workshop she started in 2010. This week-long summer program encourages the participation of sixth to eighth graders in eco-friendly, outdoor art installations. The goal is to build rapport with students who are too young to be in the summer internship program for high school students.
Mentoring is key to the Pratt’s culture and a positive mechanism used to cultivate local talent and promote a vibrant community. Mentors offer guidance and serve as role models, providing inspiration. At the museum, mentorship is about providing guidance within the field. Young adults learn what it’s like to work in a museum as they search their professional futures.
“It’s exciting to see a new crop of museum professionals who were directly inspired by staff,” Christianson said.
Savannah Bradley was an intern at the Pratt when she was in high school, and was recently hired as the museum’s collections manager.
University of Montana sophomore, Emily Schmidt is currently studying wildlife biology. She was also an intern at the Pratt.
“My supervisor and mentor was Ryjil. She was amazing, always enthusiastic and positive,” Schmidt said. “I loved learning about and sharing the natural history of Kachemak Bay with visitors. Working with visitors helped improve my communication skills.”
Mentoring is integrated across the spectrum of daily operations at the museum. The process begins in the spring and goes through summer, feeding into everything the Pratt does.
The 2012 Gray Whale project is one example of the museum’s successful mentoring program.
“Lee Post led the gray whale articulation project last year,” Christianson said. “He took a group of local volunteers of all ages and backgrounds, leading them through the process of building a gray whale.”
Christianson said she believes the keys to successful mentorship include positive feedback, trust, friendship, professional role-modeling and role-modeling in general. The ability to be personable and a good communicator also helps.
“Above all else, I think successful mentors are able to suspend ego,” she said. “They are able to get outside their own professional goals to see the overall picture of what they’re trying to promote. Long-term success is based on cultivating other work. I strongly feel everyone can benefit from a mentor, and that everyone is capable of being a mentor.”
The museum’s mentors offer important tools for youth, including developing professional skills, practicing interaction with the public, obtaining professional experience, research and technical writing, and promoting responsibility.
“There are a lot of workplace skills that aren’t necessarily built into the high school curriculum;” Christianson said. “Things like cell phone etiquette, learning to schedule your workday, communicating with coworkers and how to communicate in meetings in meaningful ways.”
Christianson said she considers former museum staffer Gail Parsons to have been a “master mentor.” Parsons was the Exhibits Director and Cultural Liaison at the Pratt who started out as a volunteer at the museum.
“Gail worked at the museum for many years and had several titles and jobs,” Christianson said. “She was a kind, considerate and loving person who inspired others and took the time to hear what people had to say.”
Parsons was a mentor to people of different ages and cultural backgrounds. Her work and life has had a lasting impact on Kachemak Bay and the museum is committed to expanding her legacy.
Every year, the museum offers a Gail Parson’s Memorial Scholarship to an Alaska Native student in the region who wishes to pursue post-secondary education.
While the scholarship funding is a boon to the Pratt’s program, current funding challenges are affecting the museum’s ability to hire interns.
“In the past, we had three full-time intern positions each summer for local high school students,” Christianson said. “This year, we will likely have just one part-time position.”
The Pratt Museum’s mentoring program provides invaluable skills to Homer youth as they set out in search of their professional lives.
“It takes a village to really raise successful youth,” she said. “Mentors play a big part in all of this. We just hope we can continue our program.”
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