UW–Madison graduate found a sense of community in Stoughton through sustainability internship

As an out-of-state student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Aly Scanlon looked for opportunities to feel more at home in the place she was attending school.

Her work as a community sustainability intern in the city of Stoughton did just that.

Aly Scanlon

“Going to school so far from home, volunteering and community outreach work has really helped me throughout the years feel more connected to Madison and Wisconsin as a whole,” said Scanlon, who is from New York and graduated in December 2022. “This really felt like an extension of that: Getting to work more within the community and getting to work in a new community that I really hadn’t experienced yet.”

Scanlon’s role supporting public input activities related to Stoughton’s future sustainability plan resulted from a collaboration between University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension Dane County, Stoughton, UniverCity Alliance (UCA), and the UW-Madison Office of Sustainability

“The needs in the community, along with our office’s need for assistance, aligned with the Office of Sustainability and with their mission of giving students opportunities in communities,” Sharon Lezberg, the community development educator for Extension Dane County, said. 

“This was a new level of collaboration for the university, to bring multiple internal partners together to serve our Wisconsin communities, and (Scanlon) brought so much to the table,” added Missy Nergard, UW–Madison’s director of sustainability. 

The Stoughton Sustainability Committee wanted to be sure to include the public in developing sustainability goals. Committee chairs reached out to Lezberg and Michelle Probst, the natural resources educator for Extension Dane County, for assistance in developing a community engagement plan.

Lezberg, who is also a graduate of the Nelson Institute, then connected with UCA Managing Director Gavin Luter for help connecting with a qualified student interested in a community-based internship. Lezberg said she appreciates how UCA can help “open the gates to the university” by creating bridges to partners on campus.

“We really appreciate UniverCity for being conscious of the fact that Extension is here in the community, and that we work better together,” Lezberg said. “We want university people to know that we have community partners who can really benefit from a connection with the university, and that UCA can help negotiate those connections.”

‘New perspective’

During the Fall 2022 semester, Scanlon attended Stoughton Sustainability Committee meetings to learn about a community-wide sustainability survey developed by UW–Madison Division of Extension. She created promotional materials, like flyers, postcards, and social media posts, to advertise the survey and organized events around it. 

With degrees in economics and environmental studies, Scanlon originally thought her background in and passion for sustainability were what she brought to the role. But she found that her technical skills in marketing also proved to be assets.

Scanlon’s efforts are critical to promoting the survey. Donelle Scaffidi, vice chair of the Stoughton Sustainability Committee, emphasized the importance of making sure Stoughton residents know about the opportunity to share their opinions.

“Anytime we’re doing something like this where we’re going to be writing a plan for the city, it’s really important that the public has a voice in that because it’s going to impact their lives,” Scaffidi said. 

Probst worked with Scanlon and appreciated her ability to think outside of the typical ways of sharing information in communities.

“She was able to really look at promotion with a new perspective and bring that in, which was super helpful to us,” said Probst.

Due to Scanlon’s feedback, a public input display being developed to use in the Stoughton Library will include a digital component through a scannable-QR code and a compilation of links through a tool called Linktree.

Additionally, Lezberg said Scanlon played a valuable role by attending the Sustainability Committee’s meetings and providing feedback. Observing these meetings and working to meet the community’s sustainability needs were new experiences for Scanlon.

“It’s really not anything I thought I’d be doing,” Scanlon said. “Getting to see how these meetings are run and how they are structured, and the little, tiny rules that were in the background has been super interesting.”

These meetings also provided a consistent forum for feedback, which Scanlon found rewarding.

“Having that line of communication was really valuable throughout the internship,” Scanlon said. “I was creating something physical, and I was hearing about it from the people that would be seeing and using it.”

Her experiences with the internship have also provided Scanlon more clarity about the types of jobs she hopes to pursue. 

“It has put this idea in my head of working in a more people-centric, people-facing position, which I think is a step outside of the zone of what I studied through economics,” Scanlon said. 

While Scanlon pursues post-graduate career options, she is continuing to support Extension and Stoughton in this sustainability work by refining materials that will be used to promote the survey.

Nergard emphasized how the collaboration that led to Scanlon working in Stoughton is the Wisconsin idea in action. 

“Whether she is in Wisconsin, New York or somewhere else in the world, (Scanlon) will always be a part of our Badger community and she will be sharing her expertise and experience far beyond our state borders,” Nergard said. 

–Abigail Becker

This story was originally published in The Commons, a publication of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Read the full March edition, and view the web version or previous editions from the “News” tab on the Nelson Institute website.