Q&A with Benay O’Connell, EEC Class of 2020

Q&A with Benay O’Connell, EEC Class of 2020

We are working to share more stories from IslandWood alum, and to kick it off, here is a Q&A with Benay O’Connell, EEC Class of 2020!


Benay O’Connell, EEC Class of 2020

What have you been up to since graduating from the IslandWood grad program?


Just after graduating from IslandWood in 2020, I started a job as a summer camp instructor at Tilth Alliance teaching garden-based education. I was able to stay on after the summer, and started my current job in the Youth and Families department as a coordinator and educator. I plan and teach programming in the garden – mostly camps, after school programs, and field trips. Working at a mid-sized non-profit, my work is pretty varied– and I like that! The work I am involved in includes: curriculum and lesson development; registration and other administrative tasks; teaching about food, cooking, gardening, art, and stewardship; managing annual vegetable garden beds and a worm bin; and managing volunteer and service learning groups.


Is there anything particular about your IslandWood experience that you’re leaning on or leveraging in your current work?

Absolutely! I learned so much about education, and especially garden-based education, that I put into practice all the time at my job. I backwards plan lessons in the ways I learned from my curriculum and instruction classes, centering equity and community connections. I check in with my co-teachers the way I learned from different partner teachers during SOP at IslandWood. My garden-based education philosophy and lessons are very informed from my time at IslandWood — I strive to create a welcoming, inclusive environment in the garden; teach about the garden as an ecosystem; develop stewardship-centered curriculum; share stories of food and plants through cooking and gardening; create community agreements that all students contribute to; lead volunteer and service learning groups in learning-by-doing.


Benay O’Connell, EEC class of ’20, with teaching students in the garden at Tilth Alliance in Seattle, WA.

If you could tell a prospective IslandWood grad student one thing, what would it be?

If you aren’t sure what to do after Islandwood, reach out to alumni in fields you may be interested in! I was fortunate enough to talk with many friendly and helpful alumni as a grad. Having a cup of tea or even a Zoom chat/informational interview with alumni can help clarify what you’re looking for, as well as create connections and community. (My inbox– and garden– are always open!)


What book, article, blog post, or podcast has most inspired you lately?

The History of Food Podcast and blog is a fascinating look at diverse topics in food history: from the lives of ancient farmers, to nomadic herders, the history of factory food, American soul food, domestication and nixtamalization of maize in mesoamerica, and so much more. These episodes inspire my teaching on food and cooking!


What’s keeping you feeling hopeful?

During this time of year, growth and the upcoming spring season is keeping me hopeful. Currently watching crocuses and garlic popping up out of the ground, salmonberries and plum trees budding, a signal that longer days are coming soon. All year long, the garden’s growth cycles of regeneration keep me hopeful.


Are you an IslandWood alum? Want to share a Q&A with us? We’d love to hear from you and share what you’ve been up to! Email us at [email protected].


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