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Living my student placement dream with Cairngorms Connect

In January 2021, my university tutor informed me that ‘normally, there is an option to spend a trimester on a professional placement’. I didn't need to hear more; this was the dream opportunity I was waiting for! It was a challenge I accepted in the middle of a pandemic – but here I am, working with the Cairngorms Connect team as an Assistant Monitoring Officer intern.

But let me introduce myself first. My name is Erika Tonhauser and in 2019, I decided to go back to university to get a degree in Environmental Management. This decision came from a long chain of life events; starting probably somewhere during my childhood’s countryside summers and those skiing and hiking trips in Slovakia’s Tatra mountains, through my teenage love for geography, nature and outdoors adventures and early adulthood travels across Europe, all the way to being a travel professional, a sustainability devotee and a long-term conservation volunteer in Scotland. The remote chase to find my perfect placement opportunity was difficult – my hopes were for it to be conservation work and ideally in Scotland where I have settled, and plan to work in the future. However, after months of research, remote networking and endless emailing I was on a call with the Pip, Cairngorms Connect Project Scientist, arranging my arrival and planning my placement activities!

Now to the interesting part – what have I been up to during my two months with Cairngorms Connect?
The simple answer would be – a lot - and the sun has been shining for the most of it surprisingly!

It all really started on day two of my placement – when I joined the Willow Walk, which was a part of the wider genetic rescue project. There I was, in the snowy Cairngorm mountains where I had not been before, carrying four young trees to Loch A’an, feeling very positive about further placement activities to come if this was the start!

Overlooking the Cairngorm mountainsImage (above): Overlooking the Cairngorm mountains, taken on the Willow Walk. 

During the following weeks, I met other members of the Cairngorms Connect and wider partnership team, and got a taste of various roles and projects. It's been a really wonderful diverse experience – just what I was aiming for because Environmental Management is a field probably as broad as the professional world gets! Here's some of the things I've got up to: 

I spent a day helping around in the tree nursery, collecting and sowing montane willow seeds for more tree translocation and planting trips such as the one I joined; and getting an insight into the native forest expansion work. I received a ranger and public engagement training and spent a few evenings patrolling RSPB Loch Garten area and speaking to visitors.