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Crista O'Conner | Pursuing Her Dream in the Wildest Classroom

“Growing up in the east, I thought Idaho was nothing more than the “potato state”, but then there it was: the 2.3 million-acre Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in the heart of Idaho,” says CristaChrista Oconner Bleak head shot O’Conner, ’12, about chasing her dream of pursuing a wilderness internship at Taylor Wilderness Research Station. “As fate would have it, I was one of the three students from the College of Natural Resources to be awarded a Bleak Taylor Ranch Wilderness Internship and spend 10 weeks in the second largest wilderness in the contiguous United States.

Before coming to Taylor and conducting an extensive collection of the plants inhabiting the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, O’Conner really never envisioned herself even getting her bachelor’s degree.

Through the generosity of donors such as Clara Bleak and the DeVlieg Foundation, O’Conner was able to discover that she wants to devote her life to studying plants and is more capable of accomplishing things than she thought.

“I truly believe that the most valuable education comes in the form of “hands on,” and that is just what professors at Taylor provided: experiential education in the wildest classroom,” says O’Conner. “To recollect the experience now, I am filled with the deepest gratitude. If it had not been for the graciousness of Clara Bleak, I would not have been able to travel to such a revered land to undergo both growth of mind and spirit.”

Bleak (‘46), a philanthropist from Bloomington, Minn., has generously supported the university and CNR since 1977. During that time, she has created two endowments to benefit wilderness research and environmental education and established a $1 million bequest to benefit the University of Idaho and the College of Natural Resources’ wilderness and environmental education programs. She also initiated the development of the McCall Outdoor Science School.

“Environmental and wilderness education has been a consistent theme throughout my life,” says Bleak. “Growing up in Preston, Idaho, my interests in nature were encouraged early on by my grandmother, who taught me how to make ceramics out of the local shale and weave baskets out of the marsh reeds.”

Bleak and her late husband Ralph shared a strong passion in environmental education and together they have ensured the outdoors will always be a part of the University of Idaho.

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